Category Archives: Uncategorized

Arles: Van Gogh and Romans

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While Donna went on the Van Gogh tour, I took the bike tour which featured the Roman Museum and entry into the stunning Arena. The small city of Arles sits where the Rhone River splits into two major tributaries at the north end of the Camargue wetlands on the coast of the Mediterranean. The Romans established Arles as a major outpost in Roman Gaul where trading with local tribes was established. Since 1981 it has been a UNESCO World heritage site because of the well-preserved Roman Arena at the center of the city.

Arles Bikers

The Romans established their settlement at Arles in the 2nd Century BC. When Julius Caesar and Pompey were struggling for dominance in Rome, Arles sided with Caesar while Marseilles took Pompey’s side. When Caesar won, Arles was awarded spoils and dominated the area of what is now Provence. After biking through the narrow winding streets of central Arles, we stopped at the Museum of Ancient Arles, which features Roman artifacts and models of how things looked during the Roman era.

Among the more interesting items on display at the Museum are a bust which the locals believe to be Julius Caesar (most experts dispute the claim) and the remains of a long narrow river boat.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles for 14 months from 1888 to 1889, producing a large number of paintings, watercolors and drawings including many of his most famous works. The city has posted copies of his paintings throughout the city from the viewpoint he painted. The most familiar may be the yellow cafe on a small city square which Van Gogh portrayed at night. The city also has it’s own small Van Gogh Museum. We stopped at the hospital where Van Gogh stayed after cutting his ear while his friend Gauguin was visiting. The courtyard of the hospital is another famous painting. Seeing the actual places and comparing the paintings hints at the refraction of Van Gogh’s troubled mind, which created beauty from mundane cityscapes.

We looked through a steel fence at the Roman Theater which was once impressive with seating for 8000, but was quarried for centuries to construct newer buildings. It is under slow and meticulous reconstruction.

Two blocks away is the jewel of Arles, the Arena or Amphitheater which was built at the end for the 1st century AD. Unlike the theater, the arena has been used continuously. After the Roman era, it because a town within a city. It remade into a fortress with buildings in the center and added towers with battlements. Three middle age towers which contrast sharply with the stately Roman design, but provide the best views of the Arena and the surrounding city. Today, the Arena is used for concerts and for a more humane variation of bull-fighting in which the bulls are not hurt or killed.

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One of the challenges of a bike tour is the difficulty of getting snapshots of the beautiful views along the way. The center of Arles is a scenic tangle of narrow alleys with flower boxes, barrel tiled roofs and windows with painted shutters. It is easy to see why Van Gogh stayed.

Arles Flowers

 

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The Rhone River: Locks and Bridges

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The Rhone was the entry point for Romans into France (Gaul at that time) and all along the river there are Roman ruins. But the flow of the Rhone which begins in the Swiss Alps can be turbulent so it was long considered dangerous. It was not until after World War II that the river was tamed with locks and dams which provided a degree of control to prevent local flooding and to river more consistently navigable.

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So today, we can take a cruise down the Rhone and visit the historic cities between Lyon in Central France and the Mediterranean. Ships also often sail northward on the Saone into the Beaujolais region. Without these locks, river cruising would not be conceivable, since the river depth would more commonly be too high, so boats could not go under bridges, or too low, so there would not be enough depth for the boat to float. If you are going on a river cruise you should be aware that river conditions do sometimes cause the cruise lines to cancel or substitute a land trip for a river cruise. It is not common, but it does happen.

European riverboats are built to precisely fit into the locks and bridges on the river where they sail. One of the more dramatic evenings on the AmaCello was the night we went under the lowest bridges. A group of us went up to the top and ducked when going under these bridges. We also watched as the captain lowered the ship’s bridge so it could fit. The clearance was often no more than a few inches. There was a palpable tension as we watched these bridges approach. It was very clear that you could lose your head if you were not careful.

Between Lyon and the Mediterranean the Rhone has 12 locks which are part of the adventure of river cruising. Unlike on the Rhine cruise we did last year, we often traveled through these locks during daylight hours so we could observed the operation. But the deepest lock came after dinner and we were lowered more than 50 feet.

The locks are not actually built on the river, but on canal cuts parallel to the river. Locks are a part of dams which produce hydroelectric power. The French have built other kinds of power generation facilities along the river as well – nuclear (using river water for cooling), wind and even coal plants. However, virtually none of France’s electricity is produced in coal plants today.

For me the primary attraction of the European river cruise is the amazing history. But the technology was fascinating as well.

The Havana Experience

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Since I was young, the main impression I have had of Castro’s Cuba is of an oppressive regime that jailed dissidents and blamed the US for its financial struggles. Castro came to power promising to take away from the wealthy and powerful, and give to the poor. Eventually, his government took much private property and built a planned economy much the same way Soviet Union had. Those who spoke out against the government or Castro were jailed, often for decades. Many had their property nationalized and left Cuba settling in the US or other countries. These ex-patriots hated Castro and dreamed of returning to Cuba and taking back what was stolen from their families.

Cuba presents a different image of itself to the world. They are a land of equal opportunity where everyone can get a free education through college. And they send talented baseball, wrestling and other teams to events all over the world. They are well-known in the third world for their medical system, offering doctors to poor countries to assist with crises. In many countries, Fidel Castro is considered a hero because of the medical and other assistance his country has provided.

The US has been uniquely cut off from Cuba for nearly 50 years. Often the information we have gotten about the island was from those who left, sometimes under life threatening conditions.

Since the 1990s, Cuba has moved toward a less controlled economy, allowing individuals to own small businesses. These reforms are important but limited. And political oppression continues.

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Thelma and Louise

What remains to be seen is how American tourism will affect Cuba. Below I describe how a visit to Cuba affected a small group of American tourists. There were six of us, including two Spanish speakers.

Currency:

At the airport we stood in line to exchange our US dollars for CUCs, the official tourist currency, which is the government’s way of controlling the tourist economy. I have been told that you are better off exchanging Canadian dollars or Euros, so some people buy those currencies in the US before they leave. We got .87 CUCs for a US dollar at the airport and a Havana bank. At a desperate moment we did an exchange on the street and got a better rate – .90.

We found only one place in Cuba that accepted US dollars – the duty-free shop at the airport. And we found no businesses or ATM’s that accepted US credit cards. You can use a European Visa or MasterCard. I suggest that when you enter the country that you exchange the amount you expect to spend so you can avoid having to search for another place to exchange. If there is money left over you can get US dollars back.

Transportation:

The set price for a taxi from the airport to Havana is 25 CUCs (about $28), but with six of us, we had to get a van which cost 30 CUCs. As advised in the guidebooks, we added a 10% tip. That seems to be the standard amount in taxis and restaurants.

Our cab driver for the next two days was a small, wiry man who did not smile easily. On the first day touring we set a total price for several trips at appointed times and places. He promised to pick us up at 5pm, but he called our tour guide to say he could not make it. She scrambled to find us another ride. We could have taken a taxi off the street, but we waited. When our ride finally came, it was the same driver but in a different car. We decided to pay him less than first agreed since we’d waited almost an hour. Before we even had a chance to tell him, he told us we owed him what our group had decided to offer. We found out later that his first car had broken down, but he never explained that to us. We also found out that he did not own the cars he drove. The owner had several cars he rented to drivers for a daily fee. He had to pay a set amount each day for use of the car. Our driver was a freelancer.

The next day he returned with the original car…now fixed. He picked us up from downtown and waited to take us to dinner. He came up to our apartment and made everyone Cuban coffee. He was a person who took problems in stride. And the second day he gave us a shy smile or two.

Our driver back to the airport arrived at 730am on Sunday as planned. He drove an old VW bus and was burly, gregarious man – a Zorba sort. We asked him questions through one of our Spanish speaking friends. The driver told us the VW would cost 50,000 CUCs to purchase – in the US you would pay maybe $200 for it. And he told us that gas was about 5 CUCs a gallon and that replacement parts were nearly impossible to find and very expensive. It makes sense that vehicles would be very expensive since the supply is so limited. Still that price for the car – about $55,000 – seemed exaggerated.

Lots of tourists like to take a ride in on of the classic American cars, especially the cabs. We just took pictures of them.

Except in the very center of town traffic was incredibly light even during rush hour. Few Cubans own cars, so they use the public transportation system to get to work. We saw two kinds of buses – empty and packed so full no one else could get on them. The same was true of bus stops. There was either no one waiting or thirty or more people.

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Rush hour on our street – 23rd in Vedado

Lodging:

Hotel prices in Havana are comparable to the US or Europe. But we didn’t want to stay in a touristy hotel. And we were pleased to discover that AirBnB has locations in many parts of Havana. The government must have a contract with the web company.

When we checked into the apartment, our hostess Rosi had to look at each of our passports and record our information into a printed booklet that looked like something out of the 1950s – a sort of pre-printed booklet to be turned into the authorities. The cover had a sideways H symbol which I later saw wherever there was a room for rent. When Rosi asked my friend’s birth date, she grinned and said that it was a very special and important date – the date when the revolution began.

Breakfast was 5 CUCs per person. Rosi arrived each morning and made coffee and got everything set up, much like a Bed and Breakfast in the US. The first morning we ran out of coffee and Rosi was on her phone trying to find coffee and someone to bring it to us. But none of the nearby stores had any. She seemed to be using a network of friends to check different stores. And later I realized this is how things work in Cuba. Sometimes things run out and you can’t find them. And you need a network to help you search for the missing necessity. Most stores had very limited products.

The apartment was spartan and utilitarian.  It had three bedrooms and three full baths. Each bedroom had a window air-conditioner, but the common areas were not air-conditioned. The only glass windows were in the kitchen and the french door onto the front balcony overlooking the street. The other windows were wooden jalousies. Fortunately, the weather was cool and there was no rain. The bathrooms had hot water but very little water pressure. The water was questionable so we drank bottled water (provided for 1 CUC per bottle) and used it for brushing our teeth. The television had lots of channels, but nothing international. WiFi was not offered and there were only a few places in Havana you can get it. (The big hotels had it for a fee. And there was a park in Central Havana that offered free WiFi. It was packed with people.)

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WiFi Park

There was no expectation of privacy in our apartment. Rosi did not knock when she arrived in the morning and our cab driver just walked in when he had to wait for us before the next ride. (There were safes in the closets.)

Touring:

0ur tour guide Julia was very friendly and diligent and I suspect new at taking tour groups. Rosi found her for us and she seemed to work for a tour company. She was not from Havana but had moved there to study at the University. Her major was English literature. Her spoken English was slow, but generally clear. I suspect she was better at reading and writing in English.

We had planned to go to the restaurant that she suggested near El Morro, the fortress on the other bank of the harbor. Somehow our reservation fell through. Julia did not know where else to take us to eat, so she settled on a place with a great setting near the Cathedral. We insisted that she sit with us and have lunch. She was surprised when we wanted to pay for her lunch. She asked our honest opinion of the place and we told her that is wasn’t very good. She was apologetic, but explained that she almost never went to restaurants.

Julia had to use her cell phone to contact our rides and arrange other things. At one point she looked at her phone in frustration. We found out it was a pay as you go phone and she had run out of minutes. We lent her a US phone (at $2 per minute).

Many buildings are falling apart in Havana. In Old Havana there is a lot of construction and less crumbling. The streets are mostly clean and there is almost no graffiti. I saw only a few street beggars and they were people with obvious infirmities. Many historic buildings were in excellent shape. The magnificent Capital building is being renovated.

Near the Cathedral and the waterfront we came across four tiny, old wooden fishing boats under repair. There were 4 men working on one of them. We found out later that all fishing boats are government owned.

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There were musicians all over Old Havana and they were excellent. Obviously, the government considers music a strong attraction for tourists, so music is supported. One musician approached us during the break and offered us a CD of the band’s music. But she could not make change for us.

The second day we went to Central Havana just west of Old Havana and wandered on our own. And we walked along the waterfront Malecon. Here there was a lot of crumbling and some graffiti. It was a Saturday and the foot traffic was heavy in some areas…mostly locals.

This was where we experienced the local stores. Selections in each store were random and very limited. In the last grocery store the butcher counter had two kinds of meat – something that looked like bologna and a processed ham. There were about six rows of products and an entire row was taken up with one brand of laundry soap. At one liquor store there was only rum, only one brand in different sized bottles.

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Store Display Window

At the airport while we waited for our flight home, we went into the airport store where they were selling rum and cigars and other local products. The rum prices at the airport were only a little higher than the stores in Havana. The airport store was about the size of a large convenience store. I counted 10 employees.  They had 3 cash registers and only one open despite about 10 customers waiting in line. Four the other employees were apparently counting the cash in a register that had just closed. A woman sat at the register while two men and another woman supervised. The selection of rums was good, though they did not have the Santiago rum which several locals had told us was better than renowned Havana Club, the national brand.

Except in the one touristy restaurant in Old Havana, the service in all the restaurants we went to was very friendly. At the Paladar where we had our best meal, the waiter was a civil attorney. He said he made more money at the restaurant than at his day job.

Random observations:

Half the people on our flight seemed to be Cuban Americans carrying large packages back to their families.

By establishing a separate economy for tourists through the use of a different currency, the Cuban government is able to control the distribution of profits from tourism.

We found it impossible to tell if a business was private or government-owned. I suspect this is intentional.

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Unlike Rum, cigars vary incredibly in price. In a store in the tourist section you might pay 300 CUCs for a box of 24 Cohibas. While the same box would cost perhaps 75 CUCs when bought privately. But are you getting the same product? Our friend who has some experience with Cuban cigars said the cheaper cigars were excellent. Cigar boxes must be sealed to bring them back to the US, so make sure about that. No doubt there are bad cigars sold in Cuba, but what we found were good.

On our last afternoon we were at a local park waiting for our ride back to the apartment. There was a public restroom with a long line waiting. After each person was finished the lady who was collecting the small fee would carry a bucket of water into the room to flush the toilet.

I found the Cubans I met to be happy and relaxed – happier and more relaxed than many people I encounter in South Florida. No one gave the impression that they were carefully choosing their words or told what to say to the Americans. I’m sure that part of this was because we did not spend all our time in the tourist areas. Vedado, where we stayed, is residential, so the places we went in that area had few tourists. Most likely in the big tourist hotels you get more of the party line. And perhaps it is the same with the tour companies hired by the cruise lines.

We arranged our meals and transportation with locals and negotiated what we would pay directly with them handing them cash for payments. Haggling did not seem to be common. We were not inclined to negotiate prices since we know that the average Cuban struggles financially. And no doubt the Cubans take advantage of the naïve Americans.

I asked many people if having more American tourists was good for Cuba. Most everyone said yes that it was a good thing and they were happy about it. But one person answered more critically. They said it was OK, but mostly the government benefited. They took most of the money from the tourism. I suspect that this is true. And it is why many Cuban American’s object to Cuba tourism.

“Things are much better than when we were socialist.” This was translated by one of our Spanish speaking friends who was not sure if that is really what the person meant. There is a growing entrepreneurial spirit in Havana. But clearly the government still exercises significant control.

Growing up in a capitalist democracy, I am predisposed to see the downside of communism (socialist autocracy). And recent history has amply demonstrated the inadequacies of that kind of political and economic system. Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea are the only countries still calling themselves Communist. Of those Cuba and China have integrated limited capitalist reforms. But they are still centrally controlled economies with very limited opportunities for democratic participation. And they are intolerant of opposition and dissent.

However, Cubans are obviously proud of their country and generally happy with their lives. We Americans believe that we have much to teach them. But no doubt, they have much to teach us as well.

 

Three Days in Havana

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Living in Fort Lauderdale we have access to short flights into Cuba on Southwest, JetBlue and Spirit airlines. So rather than go on a cruise, we decided to go with friends and discover Havana independently. And rather than stay in a hotel, we booked an Airbnb. We spent a lot of time talking about which section of town to stay in and settled on Vedado near the Christopher Columbus Cemetery and a 20 minute taxi ride from Central and Old Havana.

The airport is about 30 minutes south of the city. Since we only had carry-on luggage, the process of customs and immigration was fairly quick at the Havana airport (faster than our return to the US). About half of our fellow passengers checked large packages, which were likely filled with gifts and supplies for relatives on the island.

We arrived at rush hour on Thursday and I was struck by the light traffic and the cloying pollution. I vaguely remember the metallic smell of auto exhaust prior to catalytic converters, but it was overwhelming throughout our trip. The last time I had smelled that was in St. Petersburg, Russia last Summer. I had heard that all the cars in Havana were large American cars from the 40s and 50s, but that is not really true. Perhaps a quarter of the vehicles fit that description. I did not see many new vehicles, but there were many small cars, mostly Russian Ladas, a few small Asian imports and of course buses. Some buses were old and some strikingly new. Most of these were packed tight with people. There were often crowds of people at bus stops.

We were staying in a plain art deco townhouse from the fifties that was three stories with two deep narrow apartments on each floor. We were on the second floor and had a nice size balcony. The other apartments seemed to be private homes.

Our hostess Rosi greeted us with a big smile. During our three days we spent a lot of time with Rosi. Having two Spanish speakers in our group was a blessing. Rosi’s English was barely better than my Spanish. We ran into few English speakers and even our tour guide who was majoring in English literature had difficulty expressing her thoughts. Having a translator allowed us to get to know the people better and to make private arrangements for transportation and tours. We would have managed without that benefit, but it made our trip more convenient and personal.

If you are arriving on a cruise, you can feel confident wandering on your own, but you are probably better off on a tour because of the language issue. It took me quite a while to find even a map in English, so if you haven’t done a lot of research before you go, it will be hard to know where to visit, what routes to take and perhaps most importantly, where to eat, without guidance. If time allows, take a tour for a nice introduction and then wander around on your own.

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Cash – Cuba has two currencies, one for locals and one for tourists. The tourist currency is the CUC (pronounced KOOK) which is worth about $1.10 USD. Some people recommend getting Canadian dollars or Euros in the US and then converting to CUCs for a better conversion rate overall. My suggestion is to decide what you are going to spend and convert that immediately when you get to Cuba – at least if your visit is a few days or less. It is difficult to find places to convert and they are often not open. Banks close at 3pm. We converted at the airport and the rate was the same as at a exchange in the old city. We also converted on the street…we were desperate. The street conversion was a better rate, but it was risky.

We found the CUC prices for products to be somewhat lower than in the US and in restaurants to be extremely varied – touristy place had prices about comparable to what we find in South Florida, but private places or those not catering to tourists were about half that.

Shopping – In Old Havana there were some nice artisan markets with really nice tourist products and along the Prado there were more crafts and decorative items. We went into an large indoor craft market in Central Havana (just west of the old city) and found the products cheaper but far less appealing. The local stores in Cuba reminded me of Big Lots only with a much smaller selection. Items available in a grocery store might include chips in three flavors, laundry soap, perfume, rum, soda, candy and a unappetizing processed ham of some kind. And the next store would have another selection of random products. Department stores were similar. One had furniture, bicycle pedals, pipe fittings and perhaps 10 other items. Clothing stores sold mostly fabric. For the Cubans, shopping must be like a scavenger hunt.

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Safety – On our first day, we stayed in Old Havana which was somewhat crowded. Besides an occasional sales pitch, we were not accosted by anyone. We walked through Central Havana, which is relatively poor and not touristy, for several hours on our second day. A couple of hawkers approached us to try and sell us something, but mostly we were ignored. There was not one moment when we felt unsafe. Occasionally we would see a police officer, but not that often. We tried to stay out of tight crowds which is always best in large cities. The general consensus is that petty crime and pickpockets can be a problem in Cuba, but crime against tourists is rare.

We did witness one crime. This may be unusual. Around 11pm in our quiet Vedado neighborhood, there was a purse-snatching below our front patio (we were on the second floor). A young man ran up and grabbed a purse from a young woman who was walking with a child. So, the few times we were out at night, we stayed close together.

Food – Other than money conversion, this was our biggest struggle. Unlike in the US, there are far fewer places to eat and drink. I only remember seeing one coffee shop during the whole trip. Probably the locals know where to go, but as a tourist it was challenging. Two recommendations that we read in multiple Cuba guidebooks – don’t eat the street food and carry snacks.

I highly recommend researching places to eat before you go. We didn’t do enough of that and the only good places we ate were recommended by our hostess Rosi. And she had to ask a friend. Many locals do not eat in restaurants. I had read that there were private and government run restaurants and that the government run places were not good, while private restaurants might be good. I never figured out how to tell the difference.

Places we ate and a few we didn’t:

Breakfast with Rosi every morning at our Airbnb was wonderful. Cuban coffee, tropical smoothies, eggs scrambled with onions and tomato, fresh fruit (pineapple, mango, watermelon and papaya) and toast with butter and preserves. And more than we could eat for only $5 per person.

Lunch at the National Theater (next to the capital) – pretty good but a bit pricey by local standards, beautiful setting and good service.

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La Moneda Cubana (near the Cathedral) – expensive and not good. Apparently the Ropa Vieja was decent, but the seafood was all overcooked. We ate on the rooftop which was a great setting and they had an excellent combo – a wonderful female singer and two guitarists singing back-up.

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Musicians at La Moneda Cubana

El Farallon (near our Airbnb and the Colombo Cemetery) – Cuban and Italian specialties including pizza – excellent prices and friendly service. The food was good, not great. Lots of private atmospheric rooms. Privately owned. Very popular with locals. Pizza is closer to Chicago style than to New York.

La Cocina de Lilliam (in Playa la Havana about 25 minutes drive from Old Havana) – This was our culinary highlight. Incredible setting with a covered patio dining area and seating for 50. Cuban and Spanish specialties and lots of seafood. We had Paella, a Cuban variation on eggplant lasagna, and appetizers featuring chickpeas, Serrano ham and tuna. Prices were about half what we would have paid in South Florida. This is a paladar…a restaurant in a private home. The owner/chef still does the cooking at 74.

I want to mention three places with great views and atmosphere that we walked through. The patio outside the Hotel Inglaterra (next to the Theater and Capital) had a nice casual selection of sandwiches that looked tasty. A Cuban quintet was playing. You have a view out onto the park featuring Jose Marti and a constant stream of classic cars go by looking for fares.

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Musicians on the Patio of the Hotel Inglaterra

Before Hemingway built his house, he stayed at the Hotel Ambos Mundos (you can visit his room there) which is easy walking distance from the cruise terminal. After riding the classic elevator to the sixth floor you go out onto the rooftop bar which has great views of Old Havana. It looks comfortable and the food gets OK reviews online.

Finally El Floridita was another Hemingway haunt famous for it’s daquiris. Just inside the door was a Cuban band playing Afro-Cuban classics. The place was packed at mid-day and I saw no food, only drinks. Don’t go if you don’t like crowds, but if you want to step back in time…

Amsterdam: 24 hours before our river cruise

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There is no resisting the temptation of Amsterdam when your Rhine River cruise starts or ends there. How long since my last visit there? 39 years! And it’s funny what memory does to you. The last time I was there I visited the Van Gogh museum and very briefly, the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch. I was with a girlfriend and we wandered into the red light district. As I remembered it all that was very close together. Well, I remembered wrong. I guess I was walking faster then.

This time, Donna and I stayed at a funky hotel (The Exchange) above a cafe and across from the Beurs van Berlage (old exchange building) on Damrak. We could see the main train station from the entrance to the hotel. The room was tiny, but functional. Apparently each room was designed by a local art student, but our student was not very ambitious. After we arrived we walked down to the museum district which was about a mile and a half. We didn’t visit the museums this time, but took a canal boat ride, which was definitely worth the $20 per person we spent on it. Most of the time was spent on the narrow semi-circular canals that are the main routes in old Amsterdam, but we also spent time on the Amstel River and out in the large harbor. It is a great introduction to the history and layout of the city. We learned the history of how the city evolved, why the row houses are so tall and narrow and how the residents of house boats live.

We took a taxi back to the hotel and the route was much longer than our walk because of the road construction that is going on in Amsterdam. That night we went to an Indonesian Rijsttafel (Rice table) restaurant and had their specialty. There were about a dozen different spicy dishes about half vegetarian and half with meats. Aneka Rasa is a welcoming place with reasonable prices just around the corner from the Red Light district. We walked that area on the way back to the hotel. It was just as I remembered it – pretty tacky. It was a Saturday night so there were lots of drunk men wandering around having a good old time. Definitely not my scene, but to get the whole Amsterdam experience I suppose you have to do it.

After a restless jet lag night, we got up and wandered away from the bustle of the commercial district into Grachtengordel and Jordaan, with historic houses, small museums and great canal views. We had a nice late breakfast as a French boulangerie surrounded by French tourists. Inside the cafe the walls were typically non-perpendicular which we had seen from the outside during the canal cruise. The tall narrow buildings in Amsterdam are sinking unevenly into the swamp on which the city is built.

 

Grachtengordel is where you can visit the Anne Frank House. You should book online to avoid the long lines at the museum. It was a drizzly Sunday morning and the ticket line still went around the block. I took lots of pictures of the canals which I’m going to make into a collage. One thing that we saw in this area was a hotel I want to stay in next time – the Hotel Pulitzer. It is built from 25 different canal row houses, beautifully renovated and linked. Not cheap, but it gets incredible ratings.

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After checking out of the hotel, we got a taxi for a very short ride to our riverboat – Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette.

Colmar, France in colorful Alsace

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When I was in college, I visited Colmar with a college friend who was studying in nearby Freiburg, Germany. He wanted to see the Isenheim Alterpiece, an amazing creation by Grunewald from the early 16th Century. Our Rhine cruise gave me the opportunity to go back. I did not remember the town, which is considered one of the prettiest in France.

Alsace has been part of France since the end of World War II, but for centuries it has gone back and forth between Germany and France, creating a culture and setting which mixes influences. It was not bombed during the last World War, so many of the half-timbered houses from as far back as the 14th century are still standing. These houses were painted unique colors. Rather than numbers, the address of houses in Colmar were based on their colors. Like Strasbourg, Colmar has canals in the central town.

One place we visited was Colmar’s smallest house (above) which was built into the corner of two other townhouses. Cute, but no private bathroom.

The designer of the Statue of Liberty, Frederic Batholdi, was from Colmar and there is a small museum featuring his sculptures in Colmar. Local artist Hansi created many unique signs for businesses in Colmar.

At the Unterlinden Museum you can see the Isenheim Altarpiece and a fine collection of works by other local artists from the Renaissance and a nice collection of modern paintings. The Altarpiece itself is a dramatic and visceral work which includes many panels painted to commemorate a local “plague” which infected the local population until it was discovered to be caused by a fungus found in local cereals. Below is the main panel and a portion of one of the most horrific of the panels.

If you are in Northeastern France, Colmar is worth going out of your way to see.

Strasbourg: Old and New

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Strasbourg, France is the seat of the European Parliament and Court of Human Rights making in one of Europe’s capitols (with Brussels). The entire center city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the early middles ages on it has straddled the German and French regions, but since the end of World War II it has been the capital of the French region of Alsace (now part of Grand Est).

We docked in Kehl across the Rhine in Germany and took a bus across to Strasbourg where we boarded a tour boat for a ride along the canals of the city. The canal boat avoids the road traffic and noise of the city. But unfortunately every picture is tinted blue from the windows of the boat.

Our tour began south of the city where dozens of old barges were converted into houseboats as in Amsterdam. After circling to the eastern portion of the city we entered the area where the European government has it’s starkly modern buildings, such as legislature above. Following the southern edge of Grande Ile, the historic center, we entered a lock and were in Petit-France, a colorful neighborhood of half-timbered houses. From there we headed to the Pont Couverts on the outskirts of the center with its square guard towers and headed back into town where we disembarked for a short walk to the Cathedral Square.

The gothic sandstone Notre Dame cathedral was the world tallest building during much of the Renaissance and is the sixth tallest church in the world today. We did not go inside, but the main entrance amply demonstrates the wealth of the city during the Middle Ages.

sb-cathedral-door

On the Cathedral Square were several other late medieval and renaissance building such as the wooden Hammerzell House (left).

Strasbourg is a wealthy city that blends old and new, French and German and with its large University has a very young population. If cruises are the Whitman’s sampler of travel, then Strasbourg was a confection we didn’t get enough of.