Sailing with the British

Three weeks of constant touring in Central Asia followed by 5 days of intensive sightseeing in Lebanon and 4 days of a slightly more lighthearted visit to Liverpool had left me exhausted, and, quite frankly, “toured out.” I needed some relaxation and non-touring time. Thus, I signed up for a repositioning cruise on the Britannia, sailing across the Atlantic from Southampton to Antigua in the South Caribbean starting October 26th.

A “repositioning cruise” occurs twice yearly when the major cruise ships traverse the oceans between the Mediterranean Sea, which they ply in the summer, to the Caribbean, where they sail during the winter months. These cruises lack the nearly daily stops at different ports, given the paucity of land between Europe and the Americas, but instead hold the promise of long, lazy sea days. Thus, this post is less about the sites I saw (aside from sea, clouds and sky, there were none), and more about spending a lot of time doing nothing.  

Good-Bye England (Day 1, Departure):

After an uneventful train ride from London to Southampton, I enter the cruise port, where my photo is taken, the all-important authorization is done on my credit card, my passport is confiscated to the end of the cruise and my bags scanned for alcohol infringements. I had only 1 bottle of Prosecco, the allowable BYOB. All other alcohol must be purchased at highly inflated cruise ship prices.

I had splurged on a balcony cabin, not particularly appealing in the cool, rainy weather but as I stand outside as we depart, I pop open my Prosecco and toast England good-bye. Or so I thought…..

Hello England: (Day 2, at sea):

All the Brits have been in the bars since 9:00AM watching the world rugby matches, especially England beating Australia to make the finals. It appears I am the only non-British person, of a total passenger count of 3769 aboard unless you count the Welsh couple I met. I suspect the Brits would take offence at suggesting a Welshman is not British.

The breakfast buffet offers the full English breakfast (eggs, sausage, bacon – the proper kind, not the thin little strips we call bacon back in Canada), fried tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. Healthier dishes are available, but nothing remotely Oriental or Asian. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any Asian tour groups on the ship.

The rain, winds and cool weather make sitting on the balcony or finding out where the promenade deck is undesirable, so I decide to learn how to play Bingo. One of my dinner mates, Catherine from Liverpool, agrees to show me how. “Huh?” you may ask, “surely you know how to play Bingo!” I do, but this is British bingo with 90 numbers and only 3 long horizontal lines. I spend 12 pounds for 5 cards, 2 pounds for a dabbler and win nothing after the half hour session ends. I console myself with 3:00PM tea in the buffet, featuring, of course, scones, clotted cream and jam.

Me standing beside the Britannia

Hail Britannia (Day 3, at sea):

TV screens and bars are all over the ship and every single one of them is devoted to (British) football. Sunday is football day in Britain and being on vacation at sea doesn’t seem to be a reason for anyone to miss their weekly football fix. The bars are full with drunken football fans, conversation at dinner is devoted to football and the one guy I talk to at the singles mixer goes on and on about football even after I told him twice I don’t follow British football. I escape the mixer and the bars and drink copious amounts of free champagne at the captain’s welcome party. It’s about the only free thing on this ship, except for the bathrooms and the minuscule chocolate square the steward leaves on my bed each evening.

No escaping Brexit (Day 4, At sea):

Internet on board the Britannia is expensive ($40 for 24 hours) and unreliable. I know this in advance, so being cheap and anticipating being internet free for first 3 and then 5 days at sea, I had downloaded 80 videos on YouTube, 16 series on Netflix, a few Amazon Prime shows and hundreds of hours of podcasts. Not quite downtime, but definitely disconnected.

By day 4, I am itching for news so I turn on the TV and check out the 8 channels available on board: BBC News, Sky News, 2 British sports channels, a British game show channel, and 3 British drama channels. I turn to BBC. Brexit headlines the news, Parliament voted in insufficient numbers to trigger a December election. The newscasters analyze this development for 29 minutes, before devoting the final minute to other, non-Brexit news. The situation was no better on Sky News.

One of the bars features a quiz, based on a British show called Pointless. I am tempted to test my intelligence in one of the many quizzes happening on board, but they are all British based: British history, British TV, British geography, etc. so I pass.

Into Portugal (Day 5, Madeira):

I become one of those persons I hate, a member of the horde of cruise ship passengers who descends on a port for a few hours in search of an authentic local experience. In protest, I decline going on a shore excursion pretending to show off the best Madeira has to offer, but really designed to separate passengers from as much of their money as possible. Instead I leave the port, following the very helpful giant footsteps painted on the sidewalk directing people to the town center, past the stalls selling of fridge magnets and cheap t-shirts, past the taxi-drivers, the hop-on/hop off buses and the bicycle rickshaws, walking 2 kilometers to the center of town to check out, but not stopping in at, the CR7 museum devoted to football, and a statue of Renaldo, the soccer player, who was from the island. I am on a mission: the internet. No Starbucks in sight, but the park across the port offers free wifi. I log in, read my mail, reload my expired YouTube and Netflix shows and am happy.

Brits and beached whales (Day 6, at sea):

One of the things I dislike about the Britannia is, unlike other ships I’ve sailed on, the promenade is not on a lower, covered deck encircling the ship but instead occupies a small, separate place on the top, at deck 18, completely open to the elements and surrounding a dodge ball field and 2 golf swing nets, with sun beds on both sides and overlooking the pools. It takes 7 laps to make a mile, in the 27 degree heat of the tropics with the sun glaring down, wind blowing me all over and sunbathers jumping up and down as they get drinks, go to the bathroom or chase after hats the breezes sweep away. The noise from the steel band playing on the pool deck permeates my earphones and disrupts my podcast every time I walk on the side near the pool.

Needless to say it is not ideal for walking but the only other alternative is hiking along the narrow aisles between the cabins, so I try to make the best of it. It will be a perfect opportunity to people watch, with all the sunbathers about, but some generalizations soon became apparent. Apparently Brits love their tattoos, which are displayed in all their glory on bodies clothed in too skimpy bikinis and swimming trunks, all looking really bad on 80 year old droopy, wrinkly skins. Too many women who shouldn’t wear bikinis expose vast rolls of flab bouncing about with every wave and the majority of  men over 20 possess gigantic beer bellies, but at least I don’t see any in speedos. Most are sporting sunburns, only a few teenagers are what I describe as well-toned. By and large, it was a disheartening display of decades of excess sugar, alcohol and a lack of exercise.

In this another unexciting sea day,  I manage 42 laps, watch 1 movie, 3 hours of YouTube, 4 hours of podcasts, attend a lecture about British serial killers, this one about the Rillington murders, but congratulate myself for multitasking, listening to podcasts as I do my laps.

Another relaxing day (Day 7, at Sea):

I watch 2 movies, 3 hours of YouTube, listen to 3 hours of podcasts and complete 29 laps around the promenade deck. Swells were down to 2-3 meters, the breeze was light and the temperature is 27. A lecture on the validity of the insanity defence in murder cases with reference to the Yorkshire Ripper was well presented, but I pass on the Blackjack tournament and the Adele tribute show. In the only non-British reference in the hour long BBC newscast, a fleeting mention was made to baseball, where the Nationals beat the Astros to win the World Series.

On some ships, the food is one of the highlights. Not so on the Britannia. While the menu is specially created by a world renown chef, it is decidedly British: roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, steak and ale pie with mashed potatoes and mushy peas and fish and chips. Everything is slightly bland and cooked either well-done or very well-done. I long for sushi or Pad Thai.

Time stops for no man, except British rugby fans (Day 8, at sea):

Jet lag does not happen on repositioning cruises. Instead of quickly gaining or losing 6 or more hours such as would happen on a long plane ride, cruise ships take the gentler approach of turning the clock back every day or so. Thus, an extra hour is gained on Britannia on days 5 and 7. The ship is scheduled to gain an extra hour on Day 8, but the start time for the World Cup Rugby Final, with England vying for the title, would be the ungodly hour of 6:00AM. This wouldn’t stop the pubs from being full and serving alcohol but somebody high up decided to delay the time change to Day 9, to give everyone an extra hour of sleep, completely nonsensical as the game start would be 8:00PM Tokyo time regardless and people on the ship would only look at a different time on their clocks, not gain an hour of sleep. But it raises an intriguing question. If the Britannia was running parallel with a non-British ship which had moved its clocks back, what time would it be?

Britain in mourning (Day 9, At sea):

The Rugby World Cup final game began at 7:00AM on the ship. By the time I get out of bed and move about the ship 3 hours later, the UK had lost to South Africa and most of the Brits aboard, probably about 3,000 of them, were both downing their sorrows in beer and settling in for a full day of football in the bars.

I walk 42 laps, attend another what I now refer to as “Murder of the Day” lecture, watch 2 movies, listen to 4 hours of podcasts and eat 3 times.

Another day of Football (Day 10, At Sea):

Football in the UK has gone from a Saturday ritual to a near daily ordeal, with games available to watch 7 days a week. So it was no surprise most of my fellow passengers were again glued to the TVs in the bars. A few hardy souls attend the last of their daily dance class in the lounge and the Murder of the Day lecture is so well attended that a second session is added, an expose of the Evans brothers, a pair of notorious British gangsters who made the Mafia look like kindergarten kids.

Late in the evening, as I sit on my balcony, I see, for the first time in 5 days, something other than sea, sky and clouds. A jetliner flies overhead, shattering the monotonous sound of waves gently splashing against the ship. Tomorrow we make land in Antigua. I look forward to connecting on the internet after a 5 day absence.

Next: A Caribbean Port a Day



Next: Caribbean ports

Liverpool: Reliving the Sixties

After 6 weeks exploring ancient ruins, the Silk Road, civil wars and the economic consequences of the USSR’s collapse, I was in need of something a little lighter. A chance conversation with fellow tourists on my architectural walking tour of Beirut extolling  the virtues of their home town, Liverpool, England, and its promise of a Magical Mystery Tour, a ferry crossing the Mersey and a museum devoted to British music convinced me it would be a perfect antidote to all the heavy history I had just encountered.

A quick 2 hour train ride from London deposited me at Liverpool’s Lime Station, beside the heart of downtown. My hotel was just a 5 minute walk away. Nearby were pubs galore, all filled with youngsters preparing for the Liverpool versus Manchester United football match, pedestrian walkways with restaurants from all nations, typical global stores and shopping malls, both indoor and out. Just 15 minutes away were the revitalized Albert Docks, famous for its maritime heritage. I’ll get back to that later, but this trip was about music and right outside the Mersey Ferry Building was not the expected statue of Gerry and the Pacemakers, but one of the Fab Four, aka The Beatles:


I signed up for one of a number of Magical Mystery Tours, on a bus painted like the album cover. Me and about 30 others climbed aboard. To the beat of Magical Mystery Tour, our guide gave a brief introduction to the city and The Beatles and off we drove,  past the house where Ringo Starr was born, his elementary school and the pub his mother used to sing at, before stopping at Penny Lane:


With the music of Penny Lane playing over the speaker, our guide explained that the stores and people in the song were not really about Penny Lane (…Penny Lane, there is a barber showing photographs….) since it was mostly residential, but about its intersection with Smithdown Road, where the bus with the destination “Penny Lane” turned around and where John Lennon and RIngo Starr probably spent hours walking, just not together, as they didn’t meet until they were in their 20’s.

From there we drove past George Harrison’s birth house, a non-descript 2 bedroom, 4 room house with a toilet out back, to John Lennon’s childhood house at #12 Arnold Grove, before stopping at Strawberry Fields. It’s a green space currently used to provide training to disadvantaged youths, funded in part by John Lennon’s estate.


Paul McCartney’s childhood house has been taken over by the National Trust and tours are offered, as they are at John Lennon’s house. Both apparently are decorated like they would have been in the late 50’s, with the exception of a lot of The Beatle’s memorabilia. McCartney’s house especially is rich as Paul and John composed many of their future hits there. We drove past other buildings significant to The Beatles; the place where Lennon had gone to art school, the church where McCartney had been rejected in his attempt to be a choirboy, some girlfriends’ working places, manager Brian Epstein’s house, the street where John and his Quarryman band had played, all the while listening to The Beatles tunes and the guide filling us in on details of their lives.

We ended at The Cavern Club, on Matthew Street. The street is devoted to The Beatles and shops named Rubber Soul and Sargent Peppers line the alley. Strange statues of The Beatles appear along the way:

A statue of Eleanor Rigby is nearby. She was a scullery maid who died long before The Beatles were born, but her grave is close to where McCartney first met Lennon and her tombstone the inspiration for the song:


After The Beatles played in Hamburg, they returned to Liverpool and performed at the Cavern Club 292 times between 1961 and 1963. The original Cavern Club was demolished, but the current one is a reproduction using the original bricks and blueprints, located just a few hundred feet from where it once stood. Today, it has hourly acts paying homage not only to The Beatles, but other notable bands who played there including the Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Elton John and Eric Clapton. On the 2 occasions I visited, the audience was mostly baby boomers, humming along to golden oldies from their youth:


Although there are a few museums devoted to The Beatles, I decided to take a ferry, cross the Mersey River, in honour of the song popularized by Gerry and the Pacemakers. The ferry operates largely for the tourists , playing the song and with a commentator giving history of the area, the river and the ferry. Today, most people drive though the tunnels but the ferry offers a good view of Liverpool’s waterfront, including its most famous buildings known as the Three Graces:

The British Music Experience is a new museum, tracing British music from the mid-1950’s to the present. Every half hour, a hologram performs on the centre stage – this is Boy George from Culture Club singing Karma Chameleon:


I spent an enjoyable 2 hours walking though the exhibits and listening to the music, hearing everybody from Cliff Richard to The Sex Pistols to Amy Winehouse. The museum is interesting insofar as it tried to tie popular music culture to political and economic events – apparently Grunge rock was a reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s politics- which I didn’t always agree with, but I appreciated the attempt to integrate music into the wider environment.

Liverpool offers a lot more than just music. On a walking tour, the guide explained Liverpool got its city Charter originally from King John, of Magna Carta fame, who founded it as a port to launch attacks on Ireland. The newly constructed (2008) Liverpool Museum traces the history of the city, with an emphasis on life in the 1800’s in the tenements or courtyard houses. Nearby is the Maritime and Slavery Museum exhibiting Liverpool’s contribution to both. It was the main stop on the shipping triangle: loading cheap goods on ships to send to Africa, where the ships were loaded with slaves bound for the Americas before returning to Liverpool laden with sugar and cotton.

Liverpool was the first port to use a wet dock, making it one of the most important ports in Europe. In addition to earning huge amounts from slavery, it exported alcohol and passengers, and had a healthy ship construction industry. Container ships and airline freight popularized in the 1970’s sounded the death knell for the docks but ironically, its current rebirth is due to the sea; it has become a popular stop for cruise ships.

Architecturally, the city is used by the film industry as it can serve as anywhere: Moscow in The Hunt for Red October, Peaky Blinders, Captain America (New York) and Jack Ryan (New York) to name a few. There’s the standard British traditional and modern cathedrals, modern museums, and my favourites, fabulous ventilation shafts that resemble a miniature CN tower and the best in Art Deco:

Final Thoughts:

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Liverpool. Much of it was spent humming favourite songs, reliving my teenage years when I had idolized Elton John and bragged about seeing Led Zeppelin, along with 500,000 others, at Knebworth field. I was pleasantly surprised how cheap it was, especially compared to London, the museums were good and the time I spent at the Cavern Club listening to music was a nice walk down memory lane.

Next: Cruising the Atlantic



Afjordable Norway? Oslo

Norway is considered the third most expensive country in the world, after Switzerland and Iceland. After spending 2 weeks here, I wholeheartedly agree. Fortunately, by the time I reached Oslo, following a few days in Bergen and and a week long Hurtigruten cruise, I had figured out some ways to make my time in Oslo financially bearable.

Walk rather than use transit:

Oslo, a city of 650,000, is great for walking. A few years ago, the city rid itself of all parking spots in the center and replaced them with bike lanes and pedestrian only streets, relegating most vehicles to the outskirts. Citizens and tourists alike embraced the car free, environmentally friendly, initiative and today, walking around Oslo is a pleasure. It is made even more so by plenty of zebra crossings, at least one at every intersection, and pedestrians always have priority, except for blue trams which get the right of way over everyone and everything. The Pedestrians First rule is strictly enforced with the result that vehicles always stop for walkers. It never failed to amaze me every time I stepped into the street, I was absolutely certain cars would stop. And they always did.

There are exceptions to the walk everywhere rule. The distance from the airport to the city centre is 45 kilometers, making walking impossible. The round trip train ticket cost 320 Norwegian Kroner’s (NOK) or about $50 Cdn.

I foolishly used a city bus to return to my hotel from the Viking Ship museum, at a cost 56 NOK or $8.00. It was an expensive bus ride, but an hour bike rental from the bike shares would have cost close to it at 49NOK and Oslo has a few too many steep hills for my liking to cycle. I am scared to think what a cab cost. After this experience, I walked everywhere, no matter the distance.

Eating cheaply:

Every Norwegian hotel I stayed at had huge breakfast buffets with a large variety of eggs, cold cut meats, fish, fruits, vegetables and bread, so I loaded up at brunch. No one seemed bothered when I took an orange or a pear for later. All the hotel lobbies came equipped with free snacks – apples, cookies – and in Oslo, tasty liquorice candies in which I also indulged.

Dinner was a different, and expensive proposition. One evening, I walked to the highly touted Mathallen Food Hall, expecting a wide variety of Norwegian foods but inside, Asian and Spanish tapas stalls outnumbered local food offerings and, no surprise, most of the diners were Asian tourists. I ate BBQ chicken with a French potato salad for the relatively inexpensive price of 130 NOK or $25.00.

A cheaper option are the fast food restaurants. A basic Burger King burger went for 33 NOK, but I am not a fan of American fast food chains. Instead I ate a Norwegian staple, a hotdog, for only $8.00.

Don’t tip:

The unwritten minimum wage in Norway is the equivalent of 17 Euros, or $25.00 Cdn per hour. Waiters are paid well enough without tips and tipping is not expected, which doesn’t explain why every restaurant Point of Sale terminals in Norway have a tip option.

Avoid Alcohol:

The state has a monopoly on liquor and its prices reflect this. Wine starts at 120 NOK a glass, beer 85 NOK and Prosecco 95 NOK. Paying $15 for a glass of alcohol was enough to induce me to limit my alcohol consumption. Besides, the water here is free, drinkable from the taps and public fountains and some of the best in the world. I survived on mostly water.

See free art: Frogner Park

Frogner Park contains one of the largest outdoor sculpture parks in the world, featuring 212 bronze and granite sculptures by Gustav Vigeland, every single one of them nude and mostly anatomically correct. Vigeland is a much loved Norwegian sculptor who also designed the Nobel Peace prize medal.


I began on the park’s bridge, lined on both sides by human sculptures – men, women, children, men with women, men with children, men with men, etc. before walking to the fountain, where more nude statues undertook different activities. Finally, the Monolith beckoned, with its intertwined – not a surprise- nude statues doing all sorts of things. It is all rather intriguing and gives new meaning to a romp in the park.

Try and see The Scream:

The Scream is Norwegian’s Edvard Munch’s masterpiece, an iconic expressionist painting said to symbolize the anxiety of man against nature. Less philosophically, its main figure is also considered to be the prototype for ET. The figure is on a bridge on a fjord overlooking Oslo, shrieking (the proper translation from German and Norwegian is shriek, not scream) at or in reaction to nature.

Photo of photo of The Scream

According to Wikipedia, there are 4 versions of the painting, 2 of which are in Oslo. I went to the first place, the National Gallery, only to learn that the museum was undergoing renovations and closed until 2020. Free yes, but objective unfulfilled, I walked to the second location – the Edvard Munch Museum – said to house 20,000 of his works, including the pastel version of The Scream.

I should have been suspicious when the lady in the ticket booth advised entrance was free. When I asked where I could see The Scream, I was told most of the museum was under renovation and The Scream was in storage for at least another week. Only a single room, containing a dozen paintings, was open and it was occupied by an Asian tourist group snapping selfies in front of the art. A plaque in the museum talking about the Scream indicated there were 8 versions of it, 4 more than attributed by Wikipedia, but no less illuminating as to their locations.

I had been to 2 art galleries, neither of which cost a dime, but both proved fruitless in my search of The Scream. I left feeling that, while Norway does a lot of things well (fjords, salmon, pedestrian priority), co-ordinating art gallery renovations is not one of them.

The Viking Ship Museum:

Situated in an area rich with museums (The Kon -Tiki and Holocaust museums were nearby), the Viking Ship Museum contains 3 Viking ships, the Oseberg, Gokstad and Tune built around the 9th and 10th centuries. Although each were constructed and used for sailing, they found a second life as burial graves, lying deep below mounds of dirt until 1903 when modern day archeologists dug up the ships, discovering intact ships, troves of treasures, skeletons and items buried with the deceased to accompany them on their journeys.


The Museum displays each of the ships and many of the treasures along with films about the Vikings and their exploits.

Although entry to the museum costs 100NOK, this also includes admission to The Historical Museum. I found this museum rather mundane, but it contains a single significant item: the only existing authentic Viking helmet. Notably, it contains no horns, which were a fanciful addition by the composer Wagner, whose costume designer added horns for his opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Authentic (hornless) Viking Helmet

Take a Free Walking Tour:

Free Walking Tours Oslo offers daily tours in English and Spanish. The English tour I attended was led by Tamil, a Catalan (“not Spaniard”, he said) living in Oslo. We met at the tiger statue in front of the central train station and walked around. Tamil gave us a history of the city, talked about the architecture, the food scene, why prices were so high and took us to look at some of the city’s gems: the boxy, modern opera house on the water, the classical national theatre, the royal palace, 3 city halls, etc.

For the first time in Norway, I saw some beggars, but Tamil explained they were from Romania, coming up in May and leaving in late September. The tour was informative and a good introduction to the city. The tours are never free; you tip what you think it was worth. I gave 100 NOK, an amount that seemed in line with what others were donating.

Don’t use a laundromat:

I needed clean clothes, so stupidly took a load of washing to a nearby DIY laundromat. Buying the detergent was a not unreasonable 20 NOK, but the washing machine cost 85 NOK and the dryer a ridiculous 120 NOK. Over $30 for a load of wash and the machines were not great. Next time I’ll handwash in the hotel sink.

Final Thoughts:

Oslo is a lovely city in a beautiful country. Once I found a few ways to lessen the pain caused by the ridiculous prices, I quite enjoyed it.

Next: To the Silk Road

Norway’s Fjords from the Hurtigruten

I have long expressed my disdain for cruises and cruise ships, monstrosities which dump thousands of photo seeking tourists in money hungry ports for a few hours, or usher them onto specially chartered buses to take them to swim with the dolphins or get their hair braided or race through the highlights of a city in only 3 hours, thus allowing the cruisers to claim they have had an authentic foreign experience.

My stance against cruises softened a bit during a week long stay in the Caribbean island of Curaco last year. After doing nothing but read, sunbathe and drink for a few days, I joined a Highlights of Curaco tour, where the guide tried her best to make Curaco interesting for 3 hours. This involved visiting a Curaco liqueur “factory” which was nothing more than a front for a store selling different types of Curaco, a drive to a viewpoint of a bay with turquoise blue waters and an extended stop at a beach requiring payment to use, except for the overpriced restaurants. At the end of the tour, I understood why people didn’t spend more than a few hours on Curaco. Unless you want to scuba dive or sunbathe or live there, the place is not worth more than a cruise ship stop.

Ditto for Dubrovnik, my latest love-to-hate destination and a star on the cruise ship circuit. After spending a night there, I was envious of those cruise ship passengers who could leave after a few hours, having seen the highlights and presumably not spent a minor fortune eating a crappy meal. A plate of fried octopus cost in excess of $30 and a mediocre pizza could not be found for under $20. Maybe those cruisers who went back to the ship for lunch and dinner had it right after all.

Thus, I found myself booking a 7 day, 6 night cruise on the Trollfjord, a ship in the Hurtigruten line that traverses the fjords of Norway. In defence of my hypocrisy, the Trollfjord is a working ferry, transporting cars, freight, the mail and about 300 passengers, both tourists and locals, along the Norwegian coast, a lifeline for the numerous towns and villages there. A different Hurtigruten ferry leaves Bergen every day for the north, ensuring transport for goods and people living in Norway’s north. It is also, without doubt, the only way to truly appreciate the beauty of the fjords.

The Trollfjord

As a working ferry, the Trollfjord doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a gigantic cruise ship – no swimming pool (there is a jacuzzi), no evening shows featuring Broadway caliber dancers or Cirque de Soleil acrobats but rather expedition leaders talking about the lifestyle of the Sami natives, a film about Russian trade with its northern neighbor and no late evening chocolate buffet – but the rooms are decent, there is a walking deck, a few bars where a glass of wine cost $20 and the food local, meaning lots of salmon, Arctic char and lingonberries.

The Trollfjord

We departed from Bergen in the evening, toasting (after paying another $20 for a glass of champagne) a good trip and marvelling at the lovely vista that is Bergen at night.

I looked around at the other passengers. A few people with babies, a pair of well behaved teenagers and lots of elderly people being pushed in wheelchairs. My guess is there were more wheelchairs than people under 30. The average age seemed to be over 75, lots of people used walkers or canes and I felt young. Numerous languages were spoken and all announcements were in English, Norwegian and German. I met one other couple from Canada, along with a few Norwegians and Swedes.

An expedition team was aboard, offering on-boat talks and off-boat excursions at many of the stops, sometimes with the tour bus catching up to the ship at the next stop. The excursions were expensive- $200 each for a group walking tour of a city and going much higher for the likes of Mountain Hike in the Hjorundfjord or Farm Visit in Lofoten or Meet the Vikings. Exploring the cities by myself was free so I passed on the excursions. Besides, in many ports, the tourist office was conveniently located at the dock.

Stops along the coast:

Each ferry schedule differs, depending on where people or freight needs to be dropped off/picked up and, of course, the weather. Our first stop was at a tiny hamlet called Floro where we tendered to the land and walked along the only road a few hundred metres to the single store in town. The selection wasn’t great but no one was here for the shopping. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of small communities line the coast, protected from the sea by the fjords and mountains, where fishermen have made a living since time immemorial.


Today, the region has diversified with oil services and tourism is big business. But Trondheim, a city of 190,000, and the 4th largest in Norway was an old city. The former capital under the Vikings, its Nidaros Cathedral dates from 1070 and is one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Scandinavia.


Another stop, Alesund is known for its turrets. In 1904, its mostly wooden buildings were destroyed by fire. In order to rebuild, the city imported architects from Germany who favoured neoclassical styles heavy with turrets. Their preference is visible in the cityscape today, along with ornate decorations.

On our 3rd day, we passed the 66.33 degree parallel, the start of the Arctic Circle.  A few hours later we stopped at our first Arctic town, Bodø. Years ago, when I first stepped onto the Antarctic peninsula, we were greeted by snow, penguins and seals, so I was expecting something similar – not the penguins – but maybe a reindeer or two and a glacier. No such luck. The Bodø pier looked like any working pier, with roads leading to it and warehouses all around. No animals or snow greeted us, just a harsh wind and a threatening grey sky.

Bodo pier

The lousy weather followed us up the coast, into the Lofoten Islands famous for its codfish. Not even the dark clouds masked the beauty of the fjords, deep, blue water with mountains lush with trees and houses, in the ubiquitous barnyard red and golden yellows, sitting on yards of light green grass neatly mowed. A boat or two were always moored nearby.


Tromsø is the jumping off point for Arctic adventurers and thrill seekers, its main streets lined with stores selling outdoor apparel and tour companies offering adventure experiences. Our stop was 4 hours long here, so I walked over a concrete arch bridge to the Arctic Cathedral, took a few photos and walked back. I preferred the wooden Tromso Domkirke with its carefully tended surrounding garden, but other than the churches, the town was rather bland.

The ferry continued to sail to the Northern Cape, to Honningsvåg, at 71 degrees north and only 34 kilometers to the Russian border. Many of my fellow passengers took excursions to the Russian border, but as I had been to Russia previously, felt no desire to repeat. I could only speculate that any Russian town near the border might lack the reliable electricity, good wifi, free public toilets, paved roads and general prosperity that Honningsvåg displayed. Plus, it probably didn’t have trolls.


The Scenery:

Interesting as the towns were, the star of the cruise was the scenery and it did not disappoint. Norway’s coast, as the crow flies, is 2,650 kilometers long, but add the fjords and the real coastline is closer to 100,000 kilometers. The fjords are beautiful – think deep blue waters, green mountains, pale blue skies (except for two rainy days) with little settlements providing bursts of red or yellow. It was mid-September, but the trees had already started to turn amber and yellow in places. Further north, trees were absent, replaced by lichen then barren browny grey mountain peaks. It was mostly too early for snow, but the temperature barely reached 0 after Tromsø.


On some cruises, depending on the time of year, whales are seen. September was not a good time for animal sightings, but on the last night of the cruise, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the northern lights were visible. I raced outside and was lucky to briefly glimpse the effervescent green lights dancing across the sky. It was not the spectacular, light-up-the-sky display with green flashes seen in Instagram photos, but given how early we were in the season (prime viewing is November to February) and my disappointment in failing to see them in Iceland, I was thrilled.

Final Thoughts:

The Norwegian fjords are captivating and the Hurtigruten ferry offers plenty of spectacular viewing options in comfortable surroundings. Seven days aboard it didn’t convert me into a cruise fan, but it is definitely the best way to see the fjords. I’m glad I splurged for the experience.


Afjording Norway: Oslo






On the train in Norway

For better or worse, my first impressions of a country are often lasting ones, which is why taxi drivers who pick up passengers at airports or international train terminals should quit trying to rip tourists off; do they not understand how awful a first impression they make? Which leads me to Norway. I was heading to Bergen, but since I was feeling slightly guilty about what a bad environmental footprint my business class flight to Denmark had left, I forewent the quick, 2 hour flight and opted instead for the much more environmentally friendly, politically correct, 2 days on a train.

First Impressions: Oslo:

My train ride to Oslo began in Copenhagen, going through a tunnel under the Oresund Strait to Sweden, arriving late in Gothenburg; too late to grab a bite to eat at the station, before catching another train to Oslo. Once on it, the immigration officers barely glanced at my passport before grilling the younger Spaniard beside me about why she was going to Norway and the equally young Swedish fellow about his means of support. I’d like to think their disinterest in me was due to my Canadian passport but I suspect it had everything to do with my few grey hairs and wrinkles.

The train arrived in Oslo 45 minutes late to a pounding rain storm, at 10:30PM, with many apologies by the train staff (for being late, not the rain). Google Maps said the hotel was a 7 minute walk from the station and as I had no Norwegian cash to pay a cab driver (little did I know that everybody and everything takes credit cards here), I put on my raincoat and started walking in what I hoped would be the correct direction. Luckily it was, and equally lucky, Oslo and the whole of Norway, is extremely safe. Despite my vulnerable state, dragging a suitcase whilst staring intently at a phone trying to follow directions, I felt no fear walking around central Oslo at the late hour. I arrived at my hotel 15 minutes later – I have no idea how Google Maps figures out its walking time, but I am always about twice as long as what it says it will take – and checked in.

No restaurants were open in the vicinity and I hadn’t eaten since lunch, so I asked the hotel clerk if, by chance, there were some biscuits or cookies I could have. She told me to wait while she checked in the kitchen. She came back a few minutes later with a plate filled with a piece of cake, a cut-up orange and some mini-croissants. How to make a great first impression!

To Bergen and The Flåm:

A bit of a confession here. The real reason I was taking the train to Bergen has nothing to do with my environmental sensitivities (or lack thereof), but my desire to take a ride on what is often described as one of the most scenic train rides in the world, The Flåm. I could have done it from Bergen, but that would have involved a flight and an expensive day trip and I was in no real hurry and always anxious to save a few dollars. So I booked a 4 hour train ride to Myrdal station where I would ride the Flåm Train to Flåm and back again before catching another train for the 2 hour trip to Bergen.

The train to Myrdal was comfortable. The buffet car had extra large windows, where I spent time admiring the scenery – all trees and mountains and lakes. To my chagrin, snow was visible atop a mountain, but it turned out to be a glacier so snow even as early as September 8 was not unexpected.

A preview of the scenery to come

The Flåm railway starts at the Myrdal station and runs for 20 kilometers, descending from 867 meters above sea level at a 5% gradient, whatever that means. It is steep. There are 20 tunnels, 10 cute little yellow stations and a viewing platform at the largest waterfall. More waterfalls, a glacier and beautiful Norwegian woods are passed during the hour long journey down; speed not being of much importance.

On schedule, an hour later, we arrived at the town of Flåm, a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts with hiking trails, cycle paths and fishing among the attractions. None interested me, so I stayed on the train and went back up again.


Located on a fjord inland from the Norwegian Sea and surrounded by mountains, Bergen is a spectacular city. The Gulf Stream keeps it warmer than its altitude would suggest, but with that warmth comes rain, a lot of it. Bergen is known as the rainiest city in Europe, with over 200 days of rain every year.

By some miracle, I managed to be in Bergen for 3 days without any rain, so I was quick to take advantage of the sun. First up, a 6 minute ride on the Floibanen funicular to the top of Mount Floyen to enjoy the views. I was fortunate to buy my ticket on-line, allowing me to skip the already long purchase line and save $.50 on the $14.00 fare. The funicular was full, but the views made the ride worthwhile.

Bergen from above

Going down, I managed to snag a front row seat with a pair of Calgarians, who had just finished their cruise. Bergen is a popular stop on Baltic cruises and 2 ships were always in port when I was there, along with their crowds and guides holding a stick with a number at the top. By the time I got to the bottom of the funicular, the line-up snaked for a block and probably 1,000 people were waiting.

Next stop was the intriguingly named Leprosy Museum, but it was closed as of September 1, whether for the season or renovations I never discovered. Thus thwarted, I walked to the port area, known as the Bryggen, where food stalls were set up offering all manner of Norwegian food, including reindeer and whale burgers. The prices were frighteningly high: a salmon, potatoes and vegetable plate cost upwards of $40, while the more expensive shrimp and crab dishes started at $75 and went up, all for essentially a fast food experience. Norwegian prices were bringing out the cheapskate in me. I ate a hearty (and included with the hotel room) breakfast, took a few oranges for lunch and managed with a hot dog for dinner costing about $9.00. Back at the Bryggen, a public toilet cost $2.00, credit cards only.

Sample plates for sale at the Bryggen

I can chintz on food, but don’t mind spending money on museums and guides, so I happily parted with $25 at the Hanseatic Museum to wander the museum and take a guided tour.

Now for the inevitable history lesson as told by the guide. Bergen has been populated since the Ice Ages, but its claim to historical fame is as one of the main centres of the Hanseatic League, north German merchants who set up trading routes throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Bergen’s attraction to them was stockfish, dried cod from the northern Lofoten islands, which could be stored for up to 30 years, useful as far away as Portugal when their crops failed or their catch was bad. In return, the Lofoten fishermen needed grain, since none grows that far north. It was a perfect match.

The Hanseatic merchants set up their own communities and followed very strict guidelines. By the 14th century, they had set up in Bergen, living communally in wooden houses on the dock. The area was fenced, only men were allowed in. Wives and children remained in Germany. Marrying a Norwegian woman was forbidden, not for morality reasons (the brothels were located on the other side of the fence) but to ensure potential heirs were German. Apprentice merchants learned to read and write and lived in dormitories. None of the houses had living rooms or kitchens, instead meetings were held in assembly halls, where the Hanseatics socialized, prayed and ate together.

Today, the houses, passageways and assembly halls standing date to 1704, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1702 and are an UNESCO world heritage site.

The Hanseatic Houses in Bergen

Final Thoughts:

Although it has been only 3 days, I am loving Norway, except for the prices. Beautiful scenery, clean, and modern, everyone speaks fluent English. More importantly, everyone seems kind and patient and happy. If you don’t have a train ticket, no problem, the conductor will sell you one. Looking lost? Someone will ask if you need directions. Hungry? They’ll find food for you. My hotel has free laundry – just ask at the front desk for detergent. No one seems to be in a hurry; someone asked me to cut in front of him at a hot dog stand.

I suspect it is because this is a very wealthy country (it has the world’s largest sovereign fund from its oil and gas revenues) with a generous social net. It is also mostly middle class, with very few poor or obscenely wealthy people. Trains have only second class cars and there aren’t many homeless people or beggars. I’m sure there are studies done by someone that shows Norwegians are very depressed or have the highest divorce rate or something awful, but this is the first country I’ve been to in a long time that I have felt I could live in. But only for 3 months of the year because it is bloody cold and wintery for the rest of the time.


Next: The Hurtigruten



Touring Copenhagen

After spending August in Canada, I boarded my flight for Copenhagen. Departing on time at 7:20 PM, the pilot announced we would be landing in Copenhagen a full hour early, at 7:30AM Danish time. The flight crew were thrilled with the early arrival, but it meant the overnight flight was only 5 hours, 2 of which were taken up with a very slow dinner service followed less than 2 hours later by a breakfast. There had been little time for sleep and I hadn’t had any.

The Hop On-Hop Off Bus:

“You are very early,” the receptionist at my hotel said when I tried to check in. “Why don’t you store your luggage and go do some sightseeing?” Since I had no other plans and he wouldn’t let me check in (it was only 9:00AM), it seemed like a good idea. I walked back to the Central Station, bought a ticket for the Hop On-Hop Off Bus and hopped on.

The bus drove through central Copenhagen, the commentary pointing out famous sights: the Parliament, Amailienborg Castle where the royal family lives, the newly constructed Opera House, the Central Bank building, the National Museum and Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest, Bakken, dating from 1573, is just north of Copenhagen but a lot smaller and not on the Hop On-Hop Off bus’ route. As amusement parks are not really my thing, I passed on both of them.

The highlight was a stop at Copenhagen’s iconic statue, the Little Mermaid. Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, him being one of two of Copenhagen’s most famous citizens (the other being the existential philosopher Kierkegaard), the statue was commissioned in 1913 by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg, the beer company. The Jacobsen family is one of Denmark’s richest and its name was mentioned numerous times as having commissioned art, buildings and roofs. Back to the Little Mermaid, she has been decapitated twice, stolen once and rumours abound that the current edition is not the original. Nonetheless, she is Copenhagen’s most visited tourist sight and the second most overhyped sight in Europe, behind Brussels’ Manneken Pis. I dutifully walked up to her, took a photo, then took many more photos of tourists taking photos.

A few hours of sightseeing and some catnaps on the bus later, I walked back to my hotel, checked in and crashed.

The Walking Tour:

The next day, I, along with a much too large group of about 40 others, joined Penny, a transplanted American, for a walking tour. She provided a brief history of Denmark: hunter-gatherers, farmers, Vikings who eventually adopted Christianity, Middle Ages replete with fiefdoms, the plague, continuous battles against Sweden over domination of the Baltic Sea (with the goal of taxing the merchant ships sailing through) and union with Norway for 300 years beginning 1523. It has long had a monarchy, Lutheranism became  the state religion, a constitution was adopted in 1849 at the urging of the then reigning king and absolute monarch, Frederick VII. It separated from Norway in 1814, gave up 4 of its colonies (in India, the current U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana and Iceland) and was occupied by the Nazis during WW2 after surrendering following a 2 hour battle. Interestingly, it had sold the US Virgin Islands (then named St. Thomas) to the US in 1917 for $25 million, so Trump’s current offer to purchase Greenland from Denmark is not without precedent.

Slightly longer was the explanation about the Danish revival architecture that dominates the city centre. Copenhagen was devastated by two fires in the 18th century, resulting in a dearth of old buildings and a plethora of regulations designed to avoid further fires. Streets were broadened to serve as fire barriers, bricks were used in all construction and no building could be higher than the church steeples, not as a sign of respect for religion but for the practical reason that the steeples doubled as watchtowers during fires and nothing could impede the sight-lines of the fire spotters. Thus, most buildings are 5 stories or less.

Nyhavn Canal and its adjoining waterside streets made up the former red light district, inhabited by sailors, prostitutes and Hans Christian Anderson whose name comes up a lot in Copenhagen. It was cleaned up and gentrified in the 1970’s and is now occupied by restaurants serving authentic Nordic food for the tourists, beer and wine bars and boats owned by the city. It is also colourful, quaint and pretty as a picture, of which I (and the thousands of other tourists) took many.

Nyhavn Canal

Copenhagen is not all pretty, older buildings. Modern architecture runs the gamut, but tends toward the boxy, sleek look in black and silver. It is not universally admired; one, the Blox, is routinely called the ugliest building in the world.

The Ugliest Building in the World?

Copenhagen has embraced the multipurpose building. Its brand new opera house (replacing yet another candidate for world’s ugliest building) has a high diving platform on its roof (divers dive into the canal) and the recycling plant is in the process of adding a ski slope to its roof.

The new Opera House/Diving Platform

The Foodie Tour:

Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world four times. It champions Nordic food and the eating local movement, has a tasting menu starting at $300 and a waiting list for reservations of about 35,000. Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. But I did take a food tour and sampled some Danish delights.

Danes love their herring and I couldn’t resist the herring smorgasbord, a buffet featuring more types of herring than I ever envisioned: fried herring in a vinegar/sugar dressing, creamed marinated herring, smoked herring with egg yolk, herring of my dreams, Crown herring, herring in curry dressing, capers herring, rolled herring in a white wine dressing, marinated herring with onions, marinated red Matjes herring, blueberry herrings with vinegar, marinated herring with apples and potatoes. I tried one of each; my favourite was the herring in curry dressing.

Another famous Danish favourite is the Smorrebrod, an open faced sandwich made with a thick slab of rye bread, buttered and topped with a variety of toppings, the more expensive the fancier. I dined on the rather tame smoked salmon, onions and egg salad Smorrebrod, but others come piled high with shrimp, chicken, vegetables, sauces, limited only by the chef’s imagination. Housewives used to bake the rye bread daily, then top it with the prior night’s leftovers to make lunch.


Our food tour included a beer stop – Copenhagen is proud of its beer tradition. Beer was the beverage of choice in the past few centuries since it was healthier than the filthy water that served as the city’s drinking water. Carlsberg beer is one of Denmark’s largest exports, along with LEGO and Maersk shipping containers. I skipped the beer to save the calories for desserts. Contrary to its name Danish pastries are not Danish, but Austrian. In Denmark, the thin, heavily buttered concoction filled with fruits and cheese is referred to as an Austrian pastry. Instead of trying an Austrian’s invention, I indulged in Koldskal, a summer treat made with sugared yogurt and Flodeboller, a chocolate covered marshmallow puff.

Danes love their hot dogs, loaded with everything and accompanied by chocolate milk. Our guide explained years ago, hot dog vendors were prohibited from selling fizzy drinks, so they came up with selling chocolate milk as an accompaniment. Including vegetables (onions, peppers and pickles) on the hot dog means one gets all four food groups in one meal, but I partook mostly because hot dogs, at $8.00 each, were one of the cheapest food options around. I couldn’t bear the thought of paying a minimum $14 for a glass of wine, so my days in Copenhagen were alcohol free.


In 1971, some mothers tore down a fence surrounding vacant army barracks on the island of Christianhovn to obtain access to a playground for their children. Soon, squatters moved in to the barracks, perhaps in protest to Copenhagen’s housing shortage, refused to pay rent, taxes or anything else, established a self-governing commune close to the center of Copenhagen and named it Christiania.

Today, 850 residents still live there (down from 1500 a few decades ago), but an agreement reached with the Copenhagen government in 1994 requires them to pay about $300 monthly for rent, taxes and utilities, still a considerable bargain in this city where average rents are about $3,000 per month. Christiania still tries to live by its own rules, but continual agreements with the Danish government have watered down its independence.

Its ideal was a place where each resident was responsible for the well-being of the community. It strove for economic self-sufficiency, banned cars and welcomed alternative lifestyles like LGBT, yogis and meditators. A lot of its restaurants are vegetarian and organic. Still car free, its paths are decorated with a mishmash of art, sculpture and plants.

Originally, Christiania did not prohibit drugs, so not surprisingly, drug addicts flocked to the area, creating a huge problem. But the residents managed to clear them out, and the only remnant is Pusher Street, where small booths or tables display marijuana in packages and fat cigarettes. The police turn a blind eye to this illegal activity and all are welcome so long as two rules are followed on the street: no photos and cash only.

In other areas of Christiania are weird houses, playgrounds, shops, a skateboard park, everything needed for a community. It is also Copenhagen’s 4th most visited tourist sight, somewhat diminishing its non-conformist attitude. In a nod to the residents, tour guides are not allowed to bring groups into Christiania (too many used to point out the junkies), but walk them to the entrance, explain the rules (have fun) and turn the tourists loose inside.

Concluding Thoughts:

Copenhagen is a pleasant city and the mostly fluent English speaking Danes polite and helpful to tourists. I did a few other tours, took a boat cruise through the canals and the Baltic Sea and visited the National Museum. I had only one sunny day before, as if the weather gods realized it was September, the temperature cooled, the rain became a constant and the strong winds thwarted my desire to cycle on the bike paths that line most streets. Prices are obscene; taxis cost $40 for a 10 minute ride and sit down meals were a minimum of $30 without a beverage. But it was easy enough to find alternatives. The airport train to the city was only $7.00, grocery stores sold fresh fruit and vegetables and walking is free. There is a lot to see and do, but without the gigantic tourist crowds of cities like Paris and Amsterdam. An enjoyable city.

Next: Norway



Arles: About Van Gogh

It is September and I am back on the road after spending a month in Canada, but I would be remiss if I failed to pay homage to the final city I visited in France, Arles, during the last week in July.

Provence, at last:

July was meant to be my month exploring different cities and villages in the French region of Provence, but for reasons that escape me, I ended up in regions outside of Provence more often than not. Determined to at least end in the right region, I picked Arles as my final stop.

Arles attracts tourists for 3 main reasons. First, it is a typical Provençal city, with an historic centre filled with stone houses sporting colourful flower pots, narrow winding alleyways, pretty squares where restaurants serve traditional Provençal cuisine heavy on fresh vegetables and meats infused with local herbs, museums, art galleries galore, the requisite pedestrian walkway through the old city center and oodles of French charm, all next to a meandering river, whose bridges had been medieval and quaint until the Allies bombed them during WW2. The surrounding countryside is also typical Provence; vineyards and sunflowers, stone farm houses and churches in the center of small towns built atop hills, where cobblestone streets are the norm, every restaurant has a large patio and bakeries adorn every block.

The Monuments:

The second reason to visit Arles is the monuments, six remnants from the Roman era. Standing in the centre is the Ampitheatre, the 20th largest such structure according to a plaque inside the entrance. Modelled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, the Arles Ampitheatre could hold 20,000 spectators to watch gladiators fight and chariots racing. It has been revamped and renovated to hold bull races (bull fighting is no longer permitted) and concerts.

Inside the Arles Ampitheatre

About 2/3rds of the structure is original and after paying the entrance fee, I walked around it and up its tower to admire the views, before moving on to the next monument, the Theatre, a few hundred feet away.

Part of the Arles Theatre

Nice enough, but what intrigued me most was how the ancient monuments had been integrated into the medieval city. Find a parking spot, walk under an arch in the Roman walls, walk up a winding street barely wide enough for a car and run smack dab into an Ampitheatre or the remains of the Forum across from a cluster of restaurants or next to a shop.

From the Theatre, I made my way to the Crypts, located in a building beside the Hotel de Ville or city hall. Alas, my entrance ticket was only good for 2 monuments, a point not made by the original ticket seller and I was too cheap to start buying individual tickets to the remaining monuments, I walked to the Baths of Constantine and took photos through the fence, but gave the Forum and the Ramparts a miss.

Vincent Van Gogh:

The third reason to visit Arles is the artist, Vincent Van Gogh. I had become enthralled with his life and art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wanted to learn more about him. Arles is one of the best places to do it.

Some background here about Van Gogh. He was born to a minister’s son in The Netherlands in 1853. He tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but it didn’t work out, so he turned his attention to art. Dogged by ill health and financially supported by his art dealer brother, he moved to Paris at the age of 33 where he met the artistes challenging traditional notions of art. There, he developed his impressionist style of painting, dominated by thin brushstrokes and faithful descriptions of light and movement. Finding the Paris climate unhealthy, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February, 1888 and stayed for over a year. In Arles he cut off his ear off in a fit of rage after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later, in 1890, Van Gogh discharged himself from a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint Remy and committed suicide.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was prolific. He completed 200 paintings, tons of sketches and penned numerous letters, many of which are on display in Amsterdam. In Arles, the tourist board offers a nightly Van Gogh tour, which I joined with 20 others. Our guide gave us a brief biography, then started walking us to different sights that Van Gogh had lived in, been inspired by or painted. Where Van Gogh had painted a subject, a reproduction and explanation of the picture was displayed. Thus, at the public park, we saw Entrance to the Public Park in Arles.

The Van Gogh cafe is the Cafe Terrace at Night, obviously having undergone a name change. and overpriced for the food according to the guide.

By the Ampitheatre, near the ramparts, we could look into the distance and see the countryside, inspiration for The Oliveraie and Sunflowers. We walked to the river, the watery subject of Starry Night over the Rhone before finishing the tour at the former hospital where Van Gogh stayed recuperating from his ear slashing incident. Here, he painted the The Hospital in Arles.

Van Gogh tried to return to his former lodgings (the yelllow house, now destroyed) following his hospital stay, but the townsfolk, fearful of another of his psychotic episodes, signed a petition which compelled the police to shut down his house. He stayed with his doctor for a few months before leaving for the asylum in Saint Remy.

Immersive Art and Van Gogh

At the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux-de-Provence, just a 30 minute drive from Arles, Van Gogh’s paintings are the star of an immersive art show, deigned to give the audience an holistic experience – seeing, hearing, touching – the art. In an old stone quarry with 40 foot high walls and much appreciated natural air conditioning in the +40 degree heatwave hovering over southern France, I sat down on a block of rocks and watched as giant reproductions of Van Gogh’s greatest works were projected onto the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Music accompanied the show, people walked around and touched the walls, children danced with the flowers and the stars in Starry Night twinkled above.

For an hour, I was completely bedazzled by the changing artwork and the haunting music, although the song Please don’t let me be Misunderstood was a bit too literal for my liking.

It was a good end to my month attempting to stay in Provence, basking in Van Gogh’s interpretations of the scenery, the farms and the flowers I had been enjoying first hand.

Next stop: Copenhagen

Auvergne-Rhone-Alps: Valence, Annecy and Lyon

It is probably obvious that if one wants to spend a month tootling around Provence, one should double check to ensure the cities where non-refundable hotels have been booked are in Provence. It is likely equally obvious, from the title or if you have read this far, to realize I failed miserably in this task. It wasn’t until I passed a road sign declaring Auvergne-Rhone-Alps before I realized I was no longer in Provence, although the foothills of the Alps, the chalets and the fondue restaurants should all have provided a clue. A quick check on the map of France confirmed that none of my next 3 cities were in Provence, but there was no going back unless I wanted to lose those non-refundable charges.

In any event, the cities I had chosen each had their own attractions. Valence simply to break up the drive between Avignon and Annecy; Annecy as a highly recommended pretty Alpine city and Lyon, the second largest city in France (Marseille disputes this but no one had a definitive answer) and self-described culinary capital of the world.


Everyone is entitled to their mistakes, and Valence was mine. It’s a pretty city with an historic old town, but when I googled Things to do in Valence, not a lot came up that didn’t involve a day trip to Lyon, Avignon or Annecy, cities already on my agenda. No walking tours were on offer and I had had my fill of historical museums. So I did what I always do when uncertain as to the sights. I looked up TripAdvisor, programmed its Top 10 things to do in Valence into my GoogleMaps walking application and started at # 1. It is a bandstand made famous in a French program I never heard of and was surrounded by fencing preparing for an evening rock concert. # 2 was Park Jouvet, conveniently located next to the bandstand. It was a nice park and I was enjoying the shade of a tree near a park bench until the band in attraction #1 started rehearsing, completely ruining the serenity of the park.

#3 was the Maison des Tetes, a 16th century house with Tetes or “head” carvings, hence the name and #4 was the Cathedral, closed for lunch:

The Things to do List wasn’t proving particularly engrossing. I gave up and walked down the two pedestrian streets, reminding me I had some shopping to do (replace Apple headphones I had lost) and laundry. Valence was as good a place as any to get those things done, so I did.


Nestled in the Alps around a lake (Lake Annecy, what else?) lies the city of Annecy. It calls itself the Venice of the Alps, thanks to canals that run from the lake through the old city. Venice has little to fear as competition; Annecy has only two canals, they are only a few hundred meters each and neither gondolas nor gondoliers are present. What Annecy’s canals have are pretty as punch bridges, cobblestone paths on either side of the canals for walking and restaurant patios and the Palace d’Ille, formerly a prison, now a museum.

Annecy Palace d’ Ille

Three days a week, local farmers and merchants set up a market on the cobblestones, slowing pedestrian traffic to a shuffle. Food of every sort is available, including my go-to lunch, roasted chicken, and my newest favourite, white peaches so juicy and sweet you’d think sugar was added.

Twice a year, Annecy gets inundated with tourists flocking to its annual fireworks festival – the biggest in France- and its Animation Film Festival. Neither were on when I was there, so Annecy was just very crowded with mostly French tourists coming for their week at the lake vacation.

On a hill overlooking the old town is Chateau d’Annecy, a 12th century fortress and chateau used by the counts of Geneva for protection and a residence. The buildings are a museum, but I entered the main one to be greeted by an exhibition on the woodcarving techniques used for making flat bottom boats that plied Lake Annecy, complete with a life size replica. As shipbuilding is not something I find fascinating, I quickly exited and went to the real attraction of the Chateau, its panoramic view of the city and lake.

Annecy view from the Chateau

The lake itself is emerald green. Measuring about 42 kilometers in circumference, it is home to Annecy at one end and thousands of holiday homes perched in the foothills around the lake. A bike path circles the lake, but the gentleman in the bike rental store warned me to go only halfway to avoid the hills at the other end. I took his advice and had a lovely 15 kilometer bike ride (each way), passing through farms where the tingling sound of cowbells announced the presence of cows, cottages, tents and caravan parks all filled with people enjoying the beach and every manner of water sport, from paddle boats to canoes to water-skiing.

I spent an idyllic 3 days in Annecy, going for bike rides each day, walking along the lake and dining in the restaurants along the canal.

Car versus Public Transit

I was debating whether having a car was preferable to using public transit. For a single person, it was much more expensive after car rental, gas and tolls, but it allowed me more freedom to see the countryside and visit small villages which would have been near impossible to reach by public transit.

It wasn’t all positive. As I needed hotels with parking, I wasn’t able to stay in or near the old, car free, city centres, my usual preference. I had made peace with GoogleMaps, so getting lost was not a problem and the French are relatively courteous drivers (in comparison to, eg, the Albanians). I was even starting to appreciate the ubiquitous roundabouts.

I was going back and forth on this issue as I drove from Annecy to Lyon. To save money and to enjoy the countryside, I turned on the “Avoid Tolls” feature in GoogleMaps and was rewarded with picturesque villages, fields of grapes and sunflowers and an absence of trucks. At one point, I exited a tiny village and started up a high mountain on a single lane road with a thick fence made of stone to protect the cars from the precipitous cliffs. At the top. I passed through a rock tunnel and emerged into the sunlight to be greeted by the most fabulous view, the  lake of St. Germaine la Chambotte far below in the valley. As I wasn’t able to stop at the top of the mountain, the photo was taken in a turn out about 1/3 the way down.

St. Germaine la Chambotte

After this view, renting a car won hands down!


Lyon, like many other cities, is shaped by its geography. Its highest hill, the Fourvière, was first inhabited as a colony during the Roman period. Below the hill is the oldest part of the city, the areas of St. John and St. George, which boast more Renaissance buildings than any other city except Venice. Next is the River Saone and between the island separating the Saone from the Rhone River is the typical neo-classical French city with wide boulevards, Haussmann style buildings, parks and squares and a main pedestrian street called Rue de la Republic. On the other side of the Rhone is the new city, with 20th century high rises and parking lots and a large immigrant community.

Lyon Panoramic with rivers visible if you look closely

Lyon’s early fortune as the capital of Gaul floundered with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Always a trading hub as a result of its rivers and closeness to both Italy and Switzerland, it regained its earlier prominence in the Middle Ages as the center of silk weaving. Francois Jacquard, of the Jacquard weave, used punch cards on his looms to replicate tapestry patterns, the precursor to the punch cards used by computers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The silk industry disappeared from Lyon with the import of cheap Chinese silk, but a few shops still demonstrate the looms and resulting silks.

Also during this time, the aqueducts which had supplied Roman Lyon dried up. People living in the town needed easy access to the rivers, made difficult because the houses were built right next to each other, with no roads leading to or from the rivers. To solve this problem, over 600 tunnels or passageways were built under, between or through buildings, providing direct paths to the waterways. These passageways, or traboules as they are called, still exist today and many are open to the public.

One of Lyon’s many traboules

During WW2, the traboules proved useful to both the French resistance and fleeing refugees, as the locals knew of their location but the Nazis did not. This also gave rise to one of Lyon’s darkest chapters, the tyranny of Klaus Barber, the Butcher of Lyon, who as head of the Gestapo in Lyons was responsible for clearing the passages, torturing and murdering thousands of French citizens along the way. Despite this, the US counter-intelligence agency recruited him and later assisted in relocating him to Bolivia. He was finally extradited back to France in 1984 to stand trial for crimes against humanity. His trial was held in the Appeals Court in Lyon, where he was convicted. He died in custody in 1991.

Lyon boasts it has 21 Michelin starred restaurants, but obtaining a dinner reservation for one on short notice proved impossible, so I did the next best thing. I signed up for a gourmet food tour, accompanied by 8 Americans and our guide, Olivier, a native Lyonnais. We started at a cheese store, where we sampled numerous cheeses including goat and sheep cheeses and those made from unpasteurized milk. Our next stop was at a Lyon institution, the Bouchon. Bouchons originally began in the 16th century as cheap eating houses for the silk workers. The wealthy Lyonnaise used the best parts of animals, thus typical Bouchon fare is heavy on chicharrons (pork rinds), offal and intestines, all considered waste by the upper crust. We sampled all three along with copious amounts of local red wine. The third and fourth stop featured similar foods, with the addition of beans and my favourite, saucisson brioche, a sausage cooked in a brioche pastry. We finished with ice cream and a very sweet praline cake, a fitting end to a 4 hour gourmet journey.

Next: More problems staying in Provence

Avignon: Popes, Lavender and Wine

After months of bus and train trips, group tours and trotting, suitcase in tow, from hotel to hotel, I was looking forward to 10 days in an Airbnb in Avignon, France, about 100 kilometers north of Marseille. I picked up my rental car, after enduring an hour long line at the Avis/Budget hut at the train station, and drove to my apartment. It was still hot in Provence – between 35 and 39 every day – but I had air conditioning and a pool so everything was tolerable.

Of Popes:

Avignon served as the papal seat between 1309 and 1376 when 7 popes, all French, decided Rome wasn’t good enough for them and moved the papacy to Avignon, in the south of France. Granted, it was a bit more complicated than that, but the result was the same. Avignon became the hotbed of Roman Catholicism and built a palace fit for a pope, the Palais des Popes. Although begun in 1252, it was renovated and added to until 1364.

The Palace des Popes

Today, it stands as the largest Gothic structure in the world. I went in, with hundreds of others, beginning in the courtyard which was filled with ugly movable bleachers. A children’s assembly was taking place and us mere tourists were sheperded under the bleachers through makeshift aisle ways into the palace proper. We were outfitted with IPads, which, when pointed at the appropriate apparatus in each room, played a brief video about what the room looked like back in the 14th century. So in, for example, the mammoth dining hall, the video demonstrated foods and cooking techniques popular 600 years ago. The IPad was a nice touch, providing additional information and visual aids, but it also masked the fact that, other than the outstanding architecture, the palace was mostly bare, except for the tour groups. We walked from empty room to room – this was the chapel, that was the library- with little more than the size, the ceiling beams and the fireplaces distinguishing one from another.

An inner courtyard (without bleachers)

An hour later, I exited the palace and walked, literally, around the old city’s ramparts. Begun as far back as in Roman times, they were doubled and heightened to 8 meters to protect the popes. Some are original, others reconstructed, but they frame the old city, circling it for 4.3 kilometres with 7 gates offering entrance. Next to it, on the Rhone, dozens of riverboats beginning their Rhone river cruise were ferrying their passengers into the city.

A small portion of Avignon’s walls

Not only did the walls protect the Popes from all sorts of invaders, they currently act as a natural (or government issued) barrier to modern excesses like high rises and fast food restaurants. Inside the walls, a medieval feeling may still be invoked. Many of the roads were cobblestone, numerous palaces built to house the cardinals still line the streets and churches galore stand to be admired.

Regrettably, my timing was not conducive to aimless wandering down the pretty streets. It was Avignon Festival time, with the main streets blocked to traffic and occupied instead by booksellers and artists and pop-up restaurants. The Festival is also a French fringe extravaganza, so erstwhile artists handed out fliers to their plays and pasted thousands of them on every available inch of wall, fence or post, thereby completely ruining most photo opportunities. Not unexpectedly, the Festival drew massive numbers of people to the old city, in addition to the regular tourists and school kids. It was crowded and in the +35 degree heat, not too pleasant for meandering.

Of Lavenders:

One of Provence’s attractions is the annual blossoming of lavenders, an event I was hoping to enjoy. To date, roses in Bulgaria and tulips in Holland had bloomed unseasonably early so I had missed the best of both. Lavenders are considered to be at their prime between June and August in Provence, giving me a wide window of opportunity.

I duly checked Google for the location of the best fields – they are not everywhere – and set off in my rental car for Luberon, one of the premier places for lavenders. On my way, I passed a few fields and took some photos; a preview for what was coming I hoped. But when GoogleMaps led me to the Luberon park, it failed to take into account a barrier blocking cars from entering the park and from me proceeding to the Luberon fields. I contented myself with returning to the fields I had already passed near the town of Bonnieux – they were marvellous – before carrying on to Gordes, one of the 15 or 20 prettiest towns in France according to Fodors and The Guardian. Yes it is pretty, but I was mostly interested in its Lavender Museum.


I entered the museum to find a line-up to buy tickets, which I patiently stood in for 10 minutes before paying and being directed to the demonstration outside. A young man standing next to a still waited for a large enough group before giving a 10 minute explanation how lavender essence is obtained, in both English and French. It was remarkedly similar to how rose oil, which I had learned about in Bulgaria, is obtained: put kilos of the flower into a pot, add steaming hot water, allow to seep, drain the liquid and separate the oil from the water.

The brief explanation identified the difference between lavendin and lavender. The former is the more common plant, grows at low altitudes and doesn’t have the advertised health benefits of real lavender – curing insomnia, assisting indigestion, reducing blood pressure, eliminating hot flashes, etc. – it is used exclusively in the perfume industry. With the explanation done, we were directed to return to the ticket seller to obtain our audio phones for the museum visit. Another wait ensued before the single person at the ticket area gave me some headphones and I entered the museum.

Unless you have an interest in various stills, which I don’t, the museum is a bit of a bust. It consisted of a room containing between 40-50 different kinds of stills, with an explanation as to the history and special features of each. I walked through it in 30 seconds, into a giant shop selling everything lavender-related. The one thing missing was lavender plants. For those, I was told I would need to go back towards Bonnieux to see the plants I had already admired or, if I wanted to see the real lavender plants,  to drive an hour into the hills near Sault.

So I drove to Sault, along a winding, mountainous road, past grape vines and stone houses until I arrived in the Sault Valley and was greeted with a view of patchwork fields, some green and others the telltale purple of lavender. I stopped, took photos, walked along the side of the road and enjoyed the majestic beauty of the lavenders.



The popes left another enduring legacy besides the palace in Avignon. About 12 kilometers from Avignon lies Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region and a town famous for its wines; I’ve been drinking them for years. Begun as a summer residence for the popes, the popes also planted the first vineyards in the region. Today, the Provence and Cotes Du Rhone areas produce some of Frances most beloved wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is another hopelessly pretty French town, with beige stone houses roofed with sienna coloured clay tiles, crowned by the ruins of the castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Every second building was a wine tasting cellar or store. I stopped at the Brotte Wine Museum, only to find it closed between noon and 2:00PM for lunch. This is France after all. Since I was driving, I resisted the urge to indulge in a wine tasting and contented myself with a salad at one of the many patios in the town.

Next: Driving around France



Surviving Ryanair and Marseille

Surviving Ryanair:

Having decided to spend July in Provence, France, the first challenge was how to get there from Bucharest, Romania. A few search engines later, the best answer was a non-stop flight from Bucharest to Marseille, but on Ryanair, a low cost carrier notorious for its penny pinching, At one time it had proposed charging for going to the bathroom, but had backtracked on this particular idea amidst widespread condemnation.

I mentioned my possible Ryanair flight to my son, who had flown it extensively on his European jaunt. His initial reaction was hesitant:

“ You know there is no business class on Ryanair?” he prodded.

“Yes, but I’m not such a princess that I need business class for a 2 1/2 hour flight. Besides, it’s intra-Europe so all business class is crap. Even Lufthansa uses regular seats and just blocks off the middle one.”

“Okay, but they will nickel and dime you and you know how much you hate that. Best to buy every upgrade possible so there will be no surprises. And beware, they try and sell you lottery tickets.”

I took my son’s advice to heart and bought priority boarding, extra legroom in seat 1A, a checked bag to avoid issues about whether mine was too big and the whole one-way flight totaled  $175, far less than a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg. How bad could it be?

If you don’t like rants, it is probably best to skip the next part, but here goes:

First issue, the check-in counter in Bucharest doesn’t open until a miserly 2 hours before the flight. My ride had dropped me at the airport at 5:30PM and the flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:50 PM, meaning I had 2 1/2 hours to hang around the check-in counters at Bucharest airport. It was not the most thrilling of times, but I wasn’t mugged, there were bathrooms and the Brioche Doree shop sold both tuna sandwiches and small bottles of wine. Needless to say, there was no lounge access.

Check-in finally came, security was quick with nothing confiscated, followed by too many stores selling perfume and liquor, although why anyone would buy alcohol in Romania when they are heading to France is beyond me.  I arrived at the empty gate and waited, and waited, and waited….

The area filled up, the 9:50 departure time came and went and still, nothing. I checked the “FlightTracker” app, which told me the flight was now scheduled to leave a 10:25. No word from Ryanair. Then FlightTracker said 10:50. Still silence from Ryanair. Finally, at 11:00 PM, a plane arrived at the gate, two Ryanair employees showed up and we slowly began the boarding process, Our plane took off at 11:30, meaning I would arrive at 1:00AM Marseille time, definitely not my preferred time of arrival. I checked Google, which told me a cab to my hotel would cost 60 Euros (about $100), but I decided it had been a long day and I felt in need of a splurge.

The flight itself was full, but fairly pleasant, meaning no turbulence. After the obligatory safety demonstration and take-off, the flight crew only used French on the PA system, so when they came around with a cart and I asked for a bottle of white wine, the attendant apologized and said they were doing snacks first but he would be right back with drinks. True to his word, he was back with the bottle of wine within 10 minutes and it cost only 6 Euros, about $9. For reasons I cannot explain, he took a liking to me, and offered me wine, snacks and English translations of the only in French PA announcements every few minutes, completely the opposite of what I was expecting.  I think they tried to sell lottery tickets, but I had completely tuned them out as I didn’t want to make the effort to understand the French sales pitch. The flight passed quickly, uneventful and we landed in Marseille.

Being in seat 1A, I was first at customs/immigration and the officer could not get me through fast enough. He glanced at my passport, then at me and waived me through in about 10 seconds. No stamp, no swiping my passport through a machine, just complete indifference or very tired. So much for my Schengen concerns. Unfortunately, another Ryanair flight had landed just before us, so a 20 minute wait for my bag ensued, during which I felt fully the heatwave which had been engulfing the south of France for the last week. It was 1:20 AM and still 37 degrees Celsius and the baggage area in Marseilles was not air-conditioned.

My bag eventually showed up and I made my way to the taxi area, only to find no taxis there. I used the Uber app. on my phone, just to be told no cars were available. Despondent, I looked around and saw a line of people mounting a bus, so I went, got on, paid the 8 euro fare, sat down and asked the lady in front of me where we were going. I probably should have checked this out before committing to the bus, but it was now 2:30 AM Bucharest time and I was not rational. But all was good; the bus was going to the main bus/train station in Marseille, it was air conditioned and I would figure out my next move once I got to the station.

This should be the end, but sadly, it wasn’t. We arrived at a blackened station, closed until 4:30AM, so my option of sleeping in the station evaporated. It was, according to Google Maps just a 13 minute walk to my hotel but Marseille is not the safest city (more about this later) and I didn’t think this would be a good choice. I walked around the station, looking for a well lit, populated area to hunker down for a few hours, when I saw it, a solitary taxicab with a light on. I walked over, he said he would take me to my hotel and I hopped in.

I had been forewarned by the internet that all taxicabs in Marseille belong to the Union of Thieves, so I was expecting the worst. I calculated that I had been prepared to pay 60 Euros from the airport for a taxi so, having already spent 8 Euros on the bus, anything under 50 Euros for the 6 minute ride would be acceptable. I had obviously spent too much time in Romania, where every cab driver I encountered was a crook, because this guy took me as close as he could to my hotel – the street was blocked with construction- walked me and my bag to my locked hotel, waited until the sleeping receptionist let me in and charged me the grand total of 6 Euros. He looked at me incredulously as I gave him 10 and told him to keep the rest. Thus ended my saga with Ryanair, not a total disaster since I got to my destination eventually, albeit 2 hours late at 2:00AM.

Alas, my troubles continued. As I hit the pillow at 2:30am, the loud rat-a-tat of a jackhammer began and continued non-stop until 6AM. As I discovered in the morning, the city had given permission for construction right outside the hotel to be done in the wee hours of the morning, to spare the workers from the excessive heat, hotel guests be damned. Welcome to France!

Surviving Marseille: 

Marseille is the second largest port in the Mediterranean, after Alexandria in Egypt. It was first colonized by the Greeks 2500 years ago and has the fairly typical Mediterranean history: Greek, Roman, captured by the Goths in the 6th century and eventually adopting Catholicism, Middle Ages, part of the Provence County before joining France permanently in 1482. All of this was on display at the Marseille History Museum, conveniently attached to a shopping mall and considerately free during extreme heat days to allow people to take advantage of its air conditioning. Unfortunately, the displays were mostly only in French and its high tech audio guide, in English, was finicky and thin on facts. As a museum giving a chronological retelling of the city of Marseille, it was fine but uninspiring.

Marseille’s more recent past is more unique. As a port city, it is also an immigrant city. At the turn of the last century, Italians crossed the sea and settled, bringing with them pasta and the mafia, with its skills in drug production and drug trafficking. In the 1930’s, Nazi money funded mafia controlled heroin manufacturing facilities in Marseille. Opium was smuggled in from Turkey, manufactured then the finished product shipped to Canada and the USA. Thus the French in The French Connection movie.I n the 1950’s and 1960’s, crime related to the drug trade proliferated, but was gradually reduced by aggressive law enforcement efforts by the French and US governments, although cynics claim this resulted from the drug manufacturers moving their factories to third world countries who, by the 1970’s, had developed their own proficiency in making heroin.

Following the Algerian civil war in 1962, Africans arrived in Marseille in droves, giving the city a multi-ethnic feel. It remains the jumping off point for immigrants from former French African colonies, Tunisians, Malians, etc. Needing to house the new migrants, ugly high rise apartments known as cite were built on the outskirts, creating ghettos but multiracial ones. Today, the drug traffickers are back, but instead of being Italian based, mostly African gangs from the cite control it. Gun violence has risen exponentially, attributable to the ease of weapon smuggling arising during the Arab Spring.

My walking tour went nowhere near the cites, but instead focused on the Vieux Port (old Port) at the centre of town. Fort St. Jean and Fort St. Nicholas, both built by Louis XIV in 1660, guard the entrance to the horseshoe shaped harbour, where hundreds of boats- all nice but hardly the mega yachts of Monaco or Nice – were moored, alongside a few tourist ships.

Surrounding the harbour were dozens of restaurants and ice-cream shops, all vying for tourist dollars. A few offered the regional specialty, bouillabaisse, a fish stew meaning, literally, to boil and simmer, at only 25 Euros ($40) a serving, but the guide warned us away from these obvious (to him) fakers. Real bouillabaisse costs in excess of 100 Euros per bowl and is served only by a few longtime establishments. I’m still not crazy about shellfish, so I contented myself with another local specialty, grilled sardines, a tasty bargain at a non-tourist restaurant at only 3.5 Euros a dish.

Marseille has been trying to remake itself and distance itself from its crime-ridden past. In 2013, it was a European Capital of Culture, an annual designation of two European cities, one from the East, the other from the West, designed to promote the culture richness of a city. In its honour, Marseille constructed two museums, the aforementioned Marseille History Museum and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. The building housing the latter seeks to connect the city’s past with its present with a bridge between Fort St. Jean and the new square box covered in metal sculptures representing waves. I walked over the bridge and inspected the building, but passed on the interior, which exhibits had received only mediocre reviews.

The bridge connecting Fort St. Jean to the Museum

Instead, I walked along Rue de Republic, looking much like a Paris street which is unsurprising since it was designed by Georges Haussmann, the same Haussmann who is responsible for much of Paris. Marseille’s downtown is something of an anomaly. Worried about the bubonic plague beginning in the 14th century, the city established France’s first hospital and enacted strict quarantine regulations for the large number of ships docking there. But in its last significant outbreak, the plague struck Marseille in 1720, killing nearly half the population. Those who could afford to do so abandoned their palatial homes in the city centre for the suburbs, leaving a downtown largely filled by immigrants from abroad and the country. Sadly, the centre and Rue de Republic still look largely vacant. Despite high end stores like HMV and Zara relocating there in 2013, the area could not attract sufficient numbers and today, large swaths of storefronts are empty, only a couple of restaurants are open and the hotel receptionist strongly urged me not to walk down it after dark.


Nearby, the National Park of Calanque beckons. Wikipedia defines a calanque as a narrow, steep walled inlet developed in limestone, dolomite or other rock existing along the Mediterranean coast. Taking a 3 hour cruise on one of the tourist boats in the harbour, we passed first the Chateau d’If, the fortress/prison where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated, before enjoying the views of the calanques.

Final Thoughts:

I learned my lesson about Ryanair. I would fly it again, paying in advance for every possible item but will only take it if it is the first or second flight of the day. While my flight was uneventful, the unapologetic attitude of the airline at depositing us in a city at 1:00AM was unacceptable.

As for Marseille, I spent 6 nights there, which was probably 3 nights too many. No matter how much it promotes itself as a bastion of culture, haute cuisine and safe, for me it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that makes a city special.