How long ago was it? I don't really remember, but quite some time ago I had told Jane that for her birthday, she could pick anywhere she wanted to go and it would just be a vacation, no photography. I must have had a streak of guilt to make such an offer. On the other hand, it was one of those significant birthdays that end in a zero and something special was called for. It took her about a nanosecond to come up with Paris. So Paris in April it was and Jane put her heart and soul into planning the details of the trip.
This is what she came up with. Fly to Paris, rent a car, drive to Lisse Holland for the spring flower exhibit. Then visit with my brother in Spijkenisse after which we would drive to Bruge, Belgium, for a few days. After Bruge it was onto France with short stays in the Mont Saint Michel area and the Bayeux area with a day trip to the Normandy D-Day beaches. The trip would end with a week in Paris. Jane worked out the entire itinerary, researched "must see" attractions, found excellent accommodations, highlighted the Michelin Maps with our route, and printed out detailed Google maps with directions to our lodgings. The coup-de-grâce of the entire plan was that Jane managed to obtain roundtrip business class frequent flyer tickets from San Diego to Paris.
We left the house with our carry-on luggage at 4:15 AM on Tuesday, April 9th, arrived at Charles de Gualle airport in Paris as scheduled on Wednesday, April 9th ,around 11:00 AM. After concluding the rental car transaction, we headed north to Holland. The rental car was a two-door, European sized, diesel powered, Peugeot with a standard transmission. With Jane navigating, using all the navigation aids available (paper maps, an iPad map ap, and GPS) we arrived in Lisse in time for dinner around 6:30 PM Wednesday evening. Our home in Lisse was De Duif Hotel (www.hoteldeduif.nl) where we enjoyed a junior suite with plenty of space to spread out. After dinner at La Fontana, just around the corner from the hotel, it was early to bed. We had nine hours of jet-lag to make up.
Sleep did not come easily. When we finally did fall asleep it was already late morning in Holland. We did not roll out of bed until around noon on Thursday and spent the rest of a rainy day exploring Lisse. First action of the day was lunch at the Vrouw Holle restaurant for some pannekoeken (pancakes). I had mine with smoked salmon and mushrooms while Jane had hers with brie cheese. These were not your typical Bisquick pancakes. After lunch we headed for the Black Tulip Museum (www.museumdezwartetulip.nl) to be out of the rain and wind. This museum is dedicated to preserving the history of Dutch flower-bulb agriculture.
The weather on Friday was not much better but early in the morning we drove to Aalsmeer to visit Flora-Holland (www.floraholland.com), the world's largest trading center for plants and flowers. Here they auction about 12.5 billion plants and flowers annually. Flora-Holland uses the "Dutch" auction method that is based on an auction clock. The "bidding" starts at the top of the clock with the highest price, then the bid decreases as the price circulates counterclockwise around the clock. If a bidders wants the lot, he is inclined to bid high in order to secure the lot. It is all somewhat counter intuitive but moves lightning fast with the use of an electronic bid board. In just tenths of a second, lots of plants and flowers of various sizes are traded and global prices are established. The floor of the trading center is a beehive of activity as growers bring their flowers to the auction and bidders obtain their lots. The flowers are physically there and are moved from seller to buyer via a complex system of carts and wagons that swarm all over the warehouse floor. It was an astonishing sight!
Keukenhof (www.keukenhof.nl), the world famous bulb garden of Holland, was only a fifteen minute walk from our hotel in Lisse. After the visiting the flower auction, breakfast and a short nap, we were ready to visit Keukenhof where bulb growers display their various hybrids to the public in a garden like setting. In anticipation of some bad weather during our trip we had packed some slip-on rain pants. Well, the weather was not too bad as we started to walk to the garden. However, by the time we arrived, it started to rain. We quickly ducked into the restrooms and slipped on our rain pants. So, equipped with suitable rain gear and umbrellas, we ventured into the 80 acre park accompanied by rain, hail pellets and thunder. The cold, late spring in Holland had not been kind to the daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths. These flowers were just coming out of the ground. Only the crocus were hardy enough to bloom. All was not lost, however, the various pavilions provided not only shelter from the foul weather, but exquisite flower displays. Blame it on our giddiness from jet-lag, but despite the unfavorable weather we thoroughly enjoyed Keukenhof.
On Saturday we drove from Lisse to Spijkenisse to visit with my brother, Dick. For an 88-year old, he is in excellent health and mentally fit. We had a lovely visit and were joined by his son, my nephew, Wim and his girlfriend, Verula. During the day we did some sightseeing along the Europort harbors, one of the world's busiest marine ports. Dutch civil engineers have recently completed a new port project that reclaimed 5,000 acres of land from the North Sea (www.maasvlakte2.nl). That evening, the five of us enjoyed a chatty family meal at De Waal Restaurant (www.dewaalrestaurant.nl) in the outskirts of Rotterdam. It was a long day and Jane and I were happy to get back to our hotel, the Carlton Oasis (www.carlton.nl) since we were not quite over the jet-lag.
After a farewell breakfast with Dick on Sunday, Jane and I turned the Peugeot south to Belgium. On the way we drove along the Delta Works, declared as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The Delta Works were initiated after the North Sea flood of 1953. This disastrous event was caused by a high spring tide and a severe storm over the North Sea. The storm resulted in 2,551 people losing their lives, 30,000 animals being drowned, and nine percent of all farmland in Holland being flooded. Fortunately for us, the weather had improved and there were no severe storms in sight. Our drive to Bruge through the low lands of Holland and Belgium was serene. We arrived at the Hotel Adornes (www.adornes.be) in late-afternoon with ample time to stroll the streets of Bruge and enjoy some famous Belgian beer. We explored this old city for several days, marveling at its ancient buildings, visiting its museums and relishing its seafood cuisine. We especially savored the mussels.
Our next destination was Châteua de Boucéel in Vergoncey near Mont Saint Michel in Normandy France, our third country. Our host was Count Régis de Roquefeuil-Cahuzac. His family has owned the estate since the 15th century when his forbearers were granted the property by the Duke of Normandy, Richard III. It was truly a grand experience staying in this old, historic châteua. Visit www.chateaudebouceel.com to learn much more about this romantic get-away. Régis shared many intriguing stories about his family and the château. One particular story touched us deeply. There is an American Cemetery in the nearby village of Saint James and Régis has volunteered stewardship of one soldier's grave. Once a week, or so, he places a bouquet of flowers on the grave. Since we were planning to visit the cemetery and memorial (www.abmc.gov), he asked us to do that for him. It was a very emotional experience for us to be at the grave to pay our respect and place a bouquet of red camellias on George Mick's grave site.
From the château, it was a short drive to Mont Saint Michel, one of France's most iconic tourist sites. Jane and I spent the most part of a day exploring the narrow streets and steep stairways leading to the monastery and church that were first established in the eighth century. The island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 14th century, during the Hundred Years' War, a small number of French knights successfully defended Mont Saint Michel from the English siege. Some of these knights were Régis' ancestors. Their loyalty to the French king was rewarded with the land grant that established the estate.
Bayeux was our next stop. In addition to having its own old medieval charm, Bayeux is the gateway to the D-Day beaches of Normandy. We visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer a short distance from Bayeux. Like the cemetery in Saint James, this memorial was also immaculately maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Reading the heroic stories about the soldiers who perished on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was a humbling and heartrending experience. We also drove to Pointe du Hoc Monument that honors soldiers of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc to disable German artillery aimed at Utah and Omaha beaches. In all, we spent most of three days in Bayeux. The village itself, although only a few miles from the allied invasion, was spared major war damage and has a bounty of medieval buildings and churches. The most significant medieval artifact in Bayeux is the 70 yard long by 20 inches high tapestry (actually an embroidery) created around 1070. The tapestry tells the story, in "picture form", of how William the Duke of Normandy defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings to become William the Conqueror and King of England.
Paris was next on Jane's itinerary. After nearly two weeks on the road we were heading for Jane's week in Paris. What can I say about Paris that Rick Steves has not already said? It was beautiful, it was charming, it was captivating, it was cosmopolitan, it was sophisticated, it was international, it was ours for a week. Jane's navigation skills got us arriving at Gare du Nord to drop of the Peugeot an hour ahead of schedule. From there it was the Number 4 Metro line to Saint-Germain-Des-Prés on the "left bank" and our apartment at 1 Rue du Dragon. We had an absolutely fabulous and enchanting time visiting museums, sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes, and walking the busy avenues and narrow side streets of Paris. The parks and gardens were outstanding. The warm, sunny spring weather in Paris had brought budding leaves to the sycamore trees along the boulevards and blossoms to the cherry trees in the parks. Students were lounging on the steps of the Sorbonne and Pantheon. Families were picnicking and playing in Parc du Champ de Mars in front of the Tour Eiffel.
Oh what a delightful, exhilarating time we had exploring the iconic and obscure sites of Paris!
That's all folks. After a week of the hustle and bustle in Paris, it was back to quiet San Diego for us. With a tinge of depression and sadness, we boarded our Delta flight back home. The saving grace was that we flew in business class and fully enjoyed all the privileges that were bestowed upon us during the flight.