So today I've put together a small sampling of the open air gallery encountered daily here.
As readers of this blog know, I am in Montréal, Québec for several weeks. And as I've made my way around this fascinating city I've been struck by the number of creative wall murals and other street art scattered around town. From back alleys, to apartment walls to building facades, to the very sidewalks under your feet - art is everywhere in Montréal.
So today I've put together a small sampling of the open air gallery encountered daily here.
Tropical Storm Irene
Yesterday had been planned-out far in-advance. A gathering of friends and family had been scheduled, arrangements made, expectations set. But tropical storm Irene had other plans - and as is always the case - Mother Nature won.
The anticipated lovely late-summer day quickly gave way to powerful winds and torrential rain, and in the name of safety and common sense, our plans were cancelled and everyone wound-up hunkered-down in their respective homes for the duration.
And as luck would have it, just as dusk was settling over us, we lost electrical power. There would be no cooking of dinner, no TV or radio - nothing of the modern world. And this was pure serendipity.
Out came the candles, and we sat together contemplating our options. It was then that we remembered the bottle of Sauternes and tin of Fois Gras purchased earlier this year while on a tour of the Bordeaux vineyards. Either one of these would've been a treat, but together they result in one of the truly great culinary indulgences imaginable.
The Child of Noble Rot
Surrounded on three sides by the red wine producing district of Graves, and by the Garonne River on the other, Sauternes is home to (in my view) the best sweet wines in the world. The secret to the production of Sauternes is the presence of the warm Garonne on one side and its smaller tributary, the Ciron, with its much cooler waters, on the other.
The combination results in nightly mists coating the vines, that then dissipate during the day under the warm sun. The affect of this process on the region's grapes leads to their dehydration, and the development of a rot on the fruit. This causes the grapes to become partially raisined, leading to a concentrated and distinctly flavored sweet wine.
If taken too far - the rot is simply rot - and the grapes are useless. But if the process develops in just the right way - it leads to the growth of what is called Noble Rot. And from these grapes drips the nectar for which the vineyards of Sauternes are justly famous. It is a delicate balancing act that is very hit or miss - and leads to great differences from harvest to harvest. But to my rather un-trained palate, it is simply a difference in degrees of deliciousness.
The Sauternes wine
The Sauternes region is quite small and divided into five communes; Barsac, Sauternes, Bommes, Fargues, and Preignac. Only wines produced here may bear the name Sauternes.
Production of this varietal is subject to the rigorous rules and guidelines which characterize all Bordeaux wine making. Each vintage must pass a "tasting exam" to gauge its sweetness, and is required to have a minimum of 13% alcohol before it can sport the appellation Sauternes.
The entire process results in a rather expensive final product - but my only reaction to that is to say, "you get what you pay for". Sauternes usually come in half-bottles. And holding a glass of Sauternes to you nose yields the scents of honey, apricots, and peaches. It is best served chilled between 52 - 55° F, and can be paired with many foods with delightful results.
But the classic pairing is with the utterly decadent and completely delicious Foie Gras de Canard. And mind you, I am normally a vegetarian. But as the French love to say - il y a des limites !
All in all - an absolutely wonderful evening. Thus proving that a little break from social obligations and electricity can yield some of life's simplest and most sublime joys.
August 25th marked the 67th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris during WWII. It was in a small office at the Gare Montparnasse where the German military commander of Paris, Dietrich Von Choltitz, signed the official surrender of his forces and spared Paris the street by street fighting that had completely destroyed the Norman city of Caen just a few weeks earlier.
But the surrender came at a price. Weeks of armed resistance by the people of Paris preceded the capitulation. Somewhere between 1000 and 1500 Parisians were killed in the fighting - and roughly an equal number of German soldiers. But it could've been much worse.
Von Choltitz was a veteran of the Eastern Front - and was the commanding General at the siege of Sebastopol years earlier. During that battle the city had indeed been methodically reduced to rubble - and Von Choltitz had been brought to Paris by Hitler for the expressed purpose of repeating that experience should the Allies break-out of the Normandy battle area.
An unlikely hero emerges
Once that breakout occurred in late July, Hitler began pressuring Von Choltitz to carry-out the systematic destruction of the 'city of light' and the massacre of those who might dare to resist.
But Von Choltitz had recently met face to face with Hitler in his East Prussian headquarters - and had left that meeting convinced that Hitler had become deranged and delusional. Von Choltitz knew the war was lost - and decided to implement Hitler's plan as slowly as possible in hopes that the Allied army would arrive before he was forced to fully carry out his destructive orders.
Things began to change rapidly though as the resistance organizations of Paris - most notably the Communists - initiated an armed uprising to take control of the city. Allied forces commanding General Eisenhower had already decided to bypass Paris after the Normandy breakout in-order to avoid getting bogged down in the street fighting he feared would delay their move toward Germany.
However, the uprising by the citizens of Paris forced him to divert forces to the city to save it from a massive German counter-attack there, and the resultant destruction of the city.
The uprising began on the 19th of August - and raged until Eisenhower released a French Armored division to enter the city on August 25th, giving the citizens the force they needed to crush the Germans. Fighting continued for several days - but in the end Von Choltitz chose to end the struggle and not submit Paris to the wishes of Hitler.
As he walked through the Gare Montparnasse that day as a prisoner, he was spat upon by hundreds of angry Parisians. But little did they know that if not for his refusal to zealously follow Hitler's orders - Paris would lie in ruins - and many, many thousands of her citizens would now be dead.
Today you can still see evidence of the battles for the Liberation all around Paris. Placards mark spots where resistance fighters fell - and many bullet scarred walls have been left as they were as a constant reminder of the bravery of those August days so long ago. As you stare at those it seems as though the battle just ended, and you stop for a moment - reflective and thoughtful.
As well we should.
Among the most unique architectural characteristics of Montréal are the ubiquitous stairways leading to the upper floors of apartment buildings. You see this feature all over town - but especially on the Plateau Mont Royal, the French-speaking heart of the city and hub to everything that makes Montréal the special place that it is.
Virtually everyone who lives on the Plateau lives in an apartment building. It's a compact area where - if you don't know your neighbors - you definitely hear them. Very few buildings are more than three-stories here, and none (that I've seen) have elevators. Nor do they have internal stairwells.
Rather - access to the upper floors is gained via staircases in-front and behind the building - thus maximizing the available living space within. And a lot of thought has gone into the design of these staircases.
They often sport elaborate railings, creative paint-jobs, and quite often urban landscaping. The over-all affect is quite aesthetically appealing and gives the city a very unique character.
Most of these external staircases also have small balconies or terraces at each upper level. For many residents of the city this provides their only outdoor space. It is quite common - in the summer - to see people sitting outside on their staircase balconies enjoying the warm weather and sharing late afternoon apéritifs with friends and family.
However, when winter arrives these same staircases are covered in ice and snow. And while still charming and pleasing to the eye - they definitely become a challenge to navigate. I'll show you those when the time comes - but for now, let's enjoy summer; while it lasts.
Without doubt the most widely recognized piece of architecture in Montréal is the Olympic Stadium. It's a stunning site and can be seen from almost any part of the city. Yet it stands today as one of the most expensive useless buildings on Earth.
Designed by the French architect Roger Talillibert for the 1976 Olympic Summer Games, the stadium was plagued by design problems and labor disputes and was only partially completed when the games began.
Originally it was to have a retractable roof. This was not completed until 1987 - and never worked properly. Since then it has been replaced several times with roofs of various materials, and to this day safety issues remain.
The 45-degree slanting stadium tower is the tallest inclined structure in the world and a spectacular sight. It too remained unfinished for the Olympic games and was finally completed in 1987 as well. It now houses a funicular which hauls tourists to the observation platform at its summit. And the Olympic swimming facility sits directly under the tower.
Over the years the stadium has been home to the Montreal Expos baseball team, the Alouettes football team, and various other events, conventions and concerts. In 1977 it saw its largest crowd when 78,322 people jammed themselves inside for a Pink Floyd concert.
Originally projected to cost $134 million dollars - the final cost of the stadium was $1.47 Billion (with a B). Keep that in-mind the next time you're contemplating adding an extra room to your house. The cost over-runs became so notorious that the stadium has earned the dubious nickname of "The Big Owe".
Yet, in-spite of all this, it's hard to imagine Montréal without the stadium. Today it sits empty. No sports teams play there any longer and once regular events like the Montréal Auto Show have long since departed due to safety concerns after several beam and roof failures. But in May of this year the Province of Québec formed a committee to study ideas for its future use.
We can only wish them luck.
Of the many day-trips from Paris available to the energetic traveler, one of the most captivating is an excursion to Normandy and the D-Day battlefields. And while you could easily spend a week in the area and still not have time to see all that there is to see - you can actually cover quite a bit of ground in one day. It is a long, demanding day - but if you have the inclination and energy, it is well worth the effort. Let's get started.
Our first stop is actually the day before your trip. That's when you'll stop-by your favorite delicatessen (traiteur) to pick-up the items you'll pack for lunch the next day. Your day will be way too busy for stopping at a restaurant - and there are many wonderful picnic areas along our route - so prepare a sack of your favorite goodies and get a good night's sleep; our trip starts early.
The Train to Normandy
The first leg of the trip starts at the Gare St. Lazare where you will catch the first train to Caen at 6:45am. Be aware that no food is sold on the train and none of the station vendors will be open at that hour either - so bringing some breakfast items isn't a bad idea. It's a two hour train ride through the beautiful Norman countryside with brief stops in two or three cities along the way.
You'll arrive in Caen at 8:45am and after walking outside you'll find all the car rental agencies just across the street from the train station (except Hertz - which is around the corner to your right). Pick-up your rental car and let's hit the road. And this will be the trickiest part of your day; namely, finding the road. You'll want the N13 toward Cherbourg. It can get a little confusing when you get on the freeway in Caen, but just remember, when in doubt - follow the signs that say Cherbourg.
The Tour Begins
Our first stop is at Longues-sur Mer where you will find the only remaining long-range German artillery guns, still in their bunkers. To get there exit the N13 at Bayeux (sorry - no time for the tapestry today) and follow the many signs. The guns are in three well preserved (considering what they've been through) bunkers on an isolated cliff high above the D-Day landing beaches.
Not only are the bunkers and guns fascinating - but the cliff offers a panoramic view of all of the D-Day beaches. You are above Gold Beach with the artificial Mulberry harbor at Arromanches clearly visible off to your right.
In-fact, you have a better view of the Arromanches-Mulberry area from here than if you'd actually driven there. Since you won't have time to see all the beaches we'll head for the one off to your left - and by far the most interesting - Omaha Beach.
The American D-Day Cemetery
The road just behind you is the D514, where you'll turn right toward Port-en Bessin. Pass through this quaint village and continue on to Colleville-sur-Mer (10km total) where you will find the American D-Day cemetery beautifully laid-out on the cliffs above Omaha Beach.
I think the best word to describe this experience is sobering. Here you will see the final resting place of over 9000 American soldiers killed during the two-month long battle of Normandy. There is also an excellent Visitors Center with many fascinating items from the invasion and an excellent documentary film focusing on some of the men buried there.
Also - near the parking lot and down the ridge toward the beach - you can still see several German machine gun emplacements. It's a reminder that some of the heaviest fighting on D-Day took place right where you're standing.
When you leave the cemetery you'll be back on the D514 heading toward St. Laurent (5km). Turn right at St. Laurent and follow the signs to Omaha Beach (1km).
When you reach the beach turn left and follow the beach road as it traverses the full length of Omaha Beach. To your left are the ridges where the Germans were dug-in, and to your right Omaha Beach. At the end of the road you will be at Vierville.
This is where I suggest getting out and taking a walk on the beach - for this is the location of the famous Dog-Green sector featured in the film Saving Private Ryan. As you stand at the water's edge here and face the cliffs in front of you, you can easily imagine the terror of that June day in 1944.
When you leave here, follow the road as it goes up the hill, away from the beach and back to the D514. At the corner is a small D-Day museum well worth the €5 admission fee. Spend some time here (but not too long) and then hit the road again.
Continue following the D514 (turn right out of the museum parking lot) and after 5km you will reach Point du Hoc - the famous cliffs scaled by the U.S. Army Rangers on D-Day. Here is a location where it seems as though the war ended just months ago.
Point du Hoc - The Ranger's Assault
As you walk out to the Point you will see not only the remains of many German bunkers and artillery emplacements - but the still existing craters left by the Allied bombs trying to knock-out those guns.
Standing on the cliffs - behind the barbed wire - and looking down at the beach below - you can only be amazed that men climbed it at all; let alone under enemy fire. You can also explore several intact German bunkers here - and see the exact view the Germans had on that day. As you head back to your car there is a pleasant picnic area near the Visitors Center where that lunch you brought will really come in handy about now.
Upon leaving Point du Hoc you will again be on the by now familiar D514 where a short 4km ahead you'll reach Grandcamp-Maisy and the Army Rangers museum.
Or - if you've had enough of museums for the day - you'll also see several places along the way where you can stop and sample the local Calvados. But if you do - just remember you have some more narrow Norman road driving ahead of you.
Now we are headed for our last stop on our day-trip. From Grandcamp-Maisy you will leave the D514 and take the D199 (there's only one direction to choose - so this one's easy) until you reach the D113 - where you'll take that road in the direction of La Cambe (left). While driving you will be passing through some beautiful countryside filled with the famous hedgerows that complicated the Allied thrust during the Battle of Normandy.
At La Cambe you will find one of the more interesting - and least visited - sites having to do with the battle; the German military cemetery. Here you will see the final resting place of over 9000 German soldiers killed in the Battle of Normandy. And walking along the rows of grave markers you will be struck by the number of 17 and 18 year old soldiers who rest there. Another sobering reminder of war's cruel harvest.
Also at the cemetery is an extremely interesting and well organized Visitors Center called The Peace Center. In one of the display cases you will seen the personal affects of three German soldiers buried in the cemetery - complete with pictures from their wallets.
It brings a face to an enemy we seldom see and reminds you that in-spite of everything - these were young men not so very different from those buried at Colleville-sur-Mer.
True - they fought for one of the worst causes ever - but they were brave young men- with friends and family - just like those resting a few miles down the road.
The cemetery is located just next to highway N13, which will take us directly back to Caen (1 hour) - where it is now time to head. All the car rental agencies close at 7pm (so be careful to not cut that too close) and our train back to Paris is at 7:45pm.
Caen and the return to Paris
Once you drop-off your car you should have enough time to walk to the Orne River three blocks behind the train station. Take a stroll through this area and notice that even though you are in one of the oldest cities in France - there is hardly an old building to be found.
And this is your last battle scene - for Caen was the site of some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Normandy campaign. Indeed - the city was virtually destroyed - which is why everything looks so new - including all of the bridges.
In a way, the "newness" of Caen is like a scar on the face of Normandy. A scar which should constantly remind us of the cost of war.
Back to the train station for the 7:45 departure to Paris - which gets you back to St. Lazare at 10pm. Yes - it's a long day. But one you will remember always - and definitely worth the effort.
A Forgotten Gem
There really is no wrong choice when planning a trip to France. It's a country that seems to have something for everyone within the confines of the Texas sized hexagon; from the sensual allure of Provence, to the gastronomical joys of Burgundy and the dazzle of Paris - France has it all.
Yet in-spite of its world-wide notoriety as the home to possibly the world's best wines - Bordeaux seems to have fallen off the radar screen of many Gallic itineraries.
The city itself often seems just an afterthought when scouting la carte des vins at a nice restaurant elsewhere in France. And so this world-famous name has oddly become one of France's best kept secrets. But in reality, Bordeaux is a wonder, and a very pleasant surprise for the intrepid traveler.
A City for Walking
One of the most delightful things about visiting Bordeaux is its pedestrian friendly core. Many of the major streets here are for walking only and completely free of cars.
Yet getting around is a breeze with the city's 'state of the art' tram system. The modern tram is the world's first to incorporate a French developed technology which eliminates overhead wiring. The aesthetic impact of this is a wonderful freeing of the sight-lines throughout the left-bank (the city is built on both sides of the Garonne) core of the city.
Walking through the left bank neighborhoods, one will find old city areas with buildings many hundreds of years old as well as the more modern area from the 18th century with its magnificent Versailles style architecture. Cathedrals, museums, remnants of Roman occupation - it's all here.
And the cherry on top is without doubt the magnificent quai with the Garonne River on one side and the Place de la Borse on the other. Here you can amble for more than a mile amidst the beautifully landscaped gardens - where you're welcome to sit on the grass - and the magnificent white stone buildings which create an unbroken vista of 18th century splendor. And amazingly - you will see none of the graffiti which scars nearly every wall in Paris these days.
The Water Mirror
The crown jewell of a walk along the quai is a fountain unlike any other you have ever seen. Called the Miroir d'Eau (the water mirror), it was placed in front of the square at the Place de la Bourse with the intent of creating two plazas; and so it seems to the eye. It is one of the most spectacular things you will ever see - and it alone is worth a visit to Bordeaux. No photograph can do it justice.
Add to this an atmosphere of truly warm - and proud - hospitality, and you have a destination that will be one of the highlights of any trip to France.
Named by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site - the Bordeaux Tourism Office has become a quite active center of efforts to promote visits to their city. They offer tour packages and itineraries that are an absolutely magnificent value.
A City That Makes an Effort
You can arrange a two or three day visit through the Tourism Office which includes hotel, meal discounts, guided walking tours of the city, guided tours of the wine region (both in French and English - and both excellent), free tastings at wine shops around the city, passes to several museums, complimentary tram tickets - and even a gift basket with a bottle of one of Bordeaux's finest.
And the range of prices available for the different tourist packages offered will accommodate any budget. Unlike the Office of Tourism in most cities, the one in Bordeaux is actually a beehive of activity and a key component to getting the most from a trip to the city.
So if you're burned-out on the ubiquitous mobs, exorbitant prices, graffiti scarred walls, and less than pleasant odors of Paris, Bordeaux may be the perfect antidote.
All in all, Bordeaux is just a wonderful place to visit. Sophisticated, beautiful, and inexpensive - it really has it all.
Bon voyage !
One of the first things you notice about Montréal in the summer is the bikes. They're everywhere. For a populace trapped inside a good part of the year by icy winter weather, summer is a time to soak-in every ounce of outdoor time you can - and bikes are a major part of that.
This is a city where velo-culture is taken quite seriously. Biking tours, contests, shops, repairs, and equipment are part of daily life here all year long - but especially in the summer.
The Plateau Mont-Royal is the center of French-speaking Montréal, and an area criss-crossed with bike lanes. Walking on the Plateau requires attention not just to cars - but care in crossing the ubiquitous velo highways too. The sound of bike chimes alerting non-attentive pedestrians are heard more often than car horns here.
And for the truly adventurous there are bike touring events of every type and description organized under the umbrella of Vélo Québec. From the Tour de la Nuit to the Tour de l'île de Montréal to the Montréal bike fest - this place has got it all. The range of events and excursions is mind-boggling and sure to provide something of interest to any biking appetite.
And one need not even own a bike in Montréal to become part of the peddling culture. BIXI Montréal is a public bike sharing program (just like the one in Paris) which positions bikes around the city for open access public use. You need only register and pay a nominal fee in-order to use a bike anytime you need one, without the obligations and headaches of ownership.
Locking stations are conveniently located all-around Montréal so you are always able to secure your bike when out and about. And new bike paths are being added constantly. The cumulative impact of these initiatives has made Montréal one of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet.
So if you enjoy biking and lament the lack of accommodation where you live, perhaps a peddling vacation in Québec is just what the doctor ordered. You will definitely be among a like-minded population. And the streets of Montréal will offer you the ease of navigation only dreamt of in most American cities.
I don't know about you - but when I was a kid, I thought 60 was old. Really old. Gateway to the Golden Years old. A time when thoughts turn to slowing down and retirement. A time to look back - and "kick back" - as you step-aside for younger generations. And actually - so it used to be.
So today is my birthday - and no I'm not 60. I'm 61. And while it doesn't 'freak me out' - so to speak - it definitely gets your attention. One thing is for sure about birthdays after your 50th (to say nothing of your 60th) - you tend to be more reflective when each one arrives. And to a certain extent - somber. After all, it's absolutely certain that you have far fewer birthdays ahead of you than behind. And so the awareness of your own mortality is definitely enhanced.
But something else is also very evident to me today; 61 ain't what it used to be. I look around me, and I see people my age doing things and thinking in a manner that would've been totally foreign to my parents generation. Today, people past 50 are a much livelier breed than used to be the case. I'm reminded of Gail Sheehy's two popular books, some years ago, on the subject of aging: Passages and her later New Passages.
In the first she examined the different stages on life's journey, and in the second she investigated how each new generation is changing the inherited wisdom on how we traverse those stages. And since WWII, each generation has changed that inherited wisdom a lot. For example - nowadays (due largely to advances in medicine and diet) people not only live longer lives - they also live healthier ones.
Can't Wait for Tomorrow
When I was in my teens, whole wheat bread was essentially unheard of; let alone yoga, and vegetarianism, or any number of health related things we now take for granted. Regular exercise past 30? Used to be quite rare. Whereas now, not exercising is what makes one stand-out. And the cumulative impact of such things spread across an entire demographic have wrought profound changes on aging - for the better.
And having come of age in the 1960's, I am part of a generation that rejected everything about the word "traditional". Nowadays it's not only not surprising to see people in their 40's and 50's start new careers - it's actually quite commonplace. Sheehy called the phenomena "second adulthood" and talked of how, from the late 1960's forward, it has become a defining feature of how we now look at life. In-fact, the idea of completely changing one's life to pursue a dream after 40 or 50 has become quite common.
So yeah - it's my birthday. And I'm 61 today. But unlike anything I could've earlier imagined about reaching this age - my thoughts are completely forward looking and filled with enthusiasm. And more than ever I realize the value and profundity of a saying that each day seems less of a cliché to me; Today is the first day of the rest of my life.
Ahhh - Paris. The most beautiful city on Earth - and the number one tourist destination too. More people visit Paris each year than any other travel destination. How many? Statistics vary (for some unknown reason) from 35 all the way up to 58 million annual visitors. But whatever the actual figure is - it's a lot. I mean, consider that the leading attraction there - Notre Dame Cathedral - in 2008 saw 13 million visitors. That's over a million a month. And every year sees more. Many more.
I love Paris. I could write 15 pages on just the things that are great about the 'city of light'. But every time I visit, the increase in the number of tourists is clearly noticeable. The first time I visited the Musée d'Orsay (mid 90's) there was no line to get in and plenty of elbow room once inside. But on a visit this spring, I waited in a very long line for over an hour, and once inside it seemed more like a packed metro station than a museum. And this is true of all the major venues. There are mobs of tourists all over Paris now.
You Call That Love?
As bothersome as this is, an even more troubling development, which I first noticed 3 years ago, has now developed into a full-blown plague. It's graffiti. And not just your average spray-can variety left by local teens - but tourist-generated graffiti. And the irony is that the tourist graffiti is ostensibly a sign of each tourist's love of the beauty of Paris.
It first started less than 5 years ago. I was walking across the Pont des Artistes - a pedestrian-only bridge on the Seine - when I noticed 3 or 4 padlocks in the bridge's grilled wall. And on each padlock was written the names of two lovers. After inquiring, I was told they'd been locked there as a sign of the lovers' unbreakable bond to each other - and to Paris. "Interesting", I thought. Even a tad romantic. And I forgot all about it.
Then - as I walked across the same bridge a few months ago - I was stunned to see not just 3 or 4 such signs of "love" - but literally hundreds. Padlocks of every imaginable variety and color, each with names written on them - and each permanently sealed in-place. And what had once been a simple, and delightfully artistic grilled-wall, was now a cluttered monstrosity resembling more a junk-yard than anything else.
Et Tu Bruté?
And like any plague - it is now spreading. Each and every bridge in central Paris with such a wall is now being targeted by these "lovers" of the city. And the cumulative impact of this love-fest is the slow, methodical destruction of one of the great works of art in Paris; the sublime simplicity of her bridges.
In his book The Revolt of the Masses, Jose Ortega y Gasset asserted that the advent of the consciousness of 'mass man' as a social phenomena is new to the age of industrialism. And further, that this 'mass man' intervenes in everything - and that this intervention is solely by violence.
When I first read that in college, I didn't understand what he meant. But now, each time I walk across the Pont des Artistes (once upon a time, my favorite), I not only understand, but I also mumble a quiet, "Amen".