Bordeaux 2019 - Andorra

Andorra

Grand Circle Tours offers trip options for pre and post-trip tours.  We took the post-trip option for a tour of Andorra and Barcelona.  Kathy has always wanted to see the Gaudi church in Barcelona and it was a chance for us to visit a part of Spain.

Andorra is a parliamentary Co-principality with the French President and the Catholic Bishop of Urgell (Catalonia, Spain) acting as Co-Princes.  They each visit at least once a year (probably to buy the tax-free stuff).  Andorra is the smallest state in Europe, for all you trivia buffs. 

We met our new program director in Toulouse at the end of the French portion of our tour.  We spent the day, with three stops, on a bus drive to Andorra La Vieille, the capital of Andorra.  Our first stop was in the small French town of Foix.  The chateau overlooking the town is built into the rock outcropping which makes a very dramatic photograph. 


Chateau de Foix


Our next stop was in Pasa del la Casa in Andorra.  The town began as a hut to guard the pass into the Pyrenees mountains.  Today it is a ski town and a shopping haven due to its tax advantages.  The weather was nice, much cooler in the mountains (compared to the heat we experienced in France).


The happy couple with the Pyrenees in the background.


Our last stop before our arrival in Andorra La Vieille was a monastery in the mountain town of Meritxell.  The chapel of the Lady of Meritxell is a new structure built when the old Romanesque church burnt down in 1972.  The Lady of Meritxell is the patron saint of Andorra.


The monastery in Meritxell.


The Chapel of the Lady of Meritxell.

We spent two nights in Andorra La Vieille.  The highlight for me was photographing the town at night.  It was a very lively place due in part to a concert at the local arena.  I was fascinated by the modern statues that light-up at night.


"La Noblesse du temps" by Salvador Dali


"7 Poets" by Jaume Plensa


One of the poets.


Two parts of our Andorra stay that sticks in my mind are the trip to the Roc del Quer cliff and dinner in Andorra La Vieille where we had a very interesting conversation with a wonderful young French couple.  

The Roc del Quer is high up in the Pyrenees where the views were awe-inspiring.  We ventured out onto a skywalk that hangs out over the valley; it's not for anyone with a fear of heights.  The floor of the skywalk had plexiglass windows to look down; unfortunately, they were so scuffed-up we couldn't see through them.  At the end of the skywalk is a statue of a naked dude looking out over the valley (I started to undress to join him, the women in the group said "yes", the men said "no", I went with the men's wishes).  


The Skywalk.


The naked guy surveys the valley.


On our final night in Andorra, we had dinner on our own at a local restaurant.  The waiter did not speak English and we did not speak Catalan, so we were struggling to order.  A young French couple at the next table was nice enough to help us get what we wanted.  The wife spoke very good English partly because she had spent a year in the U.S. as a child-care worker.  They were in Andorra to buy a tent addition for their camper van (prices are very low compared to France and made it worth the trip for them).  We wanted to try the paella (a Spanish rice dish) but it came in a huge bowl and was black due to the squid in it, so we passed.  Unfortunately, we never did get to try it.

If you ever get a chance to visit Andorra, take it!!  It is a lovely place to visit, nice folks and great scenery.

Here is a link to the images from Andorra: Andorra Photos

My next post will cover our time in Barcelona, stay tuned (don't you just love a good cliche?).


Bordeaux 2019 - Toulouse

The French portion of the trip "est fini" 

Carcassonne


We have reached the endpoint of our French trip.  After leaving the "River Chanson", we spent three nights in Toulouse.  During our stay, we made a side trip to the medieval city of Carcassonne.  This is a place that has long been on my list of must-see sites.  It is the most well preserved walled city we have seen in Europe.  We walked through the city and visited the Chateau, before a nice lunch at one of the local restaurants.  Kathy and I had to try the "cassoulet" which is a regional favorite.  It is a wine-based, slow-cooked casserole with several types of meat included.  It was good but not as good as we were lead to expect (maybe it was over-hyped by the locals).  


Lady Carcas

The image above is Lady Carcas.  She is at the heart of the legend of Carcassonne.  In the 8th century, the city was held by the Saracens and ruled by Lady Carcas after the death of her husband.  The French Emporer Charlemagne laid siege to the city going on six years.  The city was near starvation when Lady Carcas made a brilliant move.  She had the last pig in town fatten-up with the last sack of wheat and had the poor guy thrown over the wall in front of the French.  Charlemagne reasoned that the city must have plenty of food if they are able to waste it by tossing it over the wall, so he cut off the siege and left.  As the French rode away, Carcas ordered the city bells rung in celebration.  One of the Frenchmen commented that "Carcas sonne" meaning Carcas sounds and "voila-voila" a city is born.  I'm sure this is a historical fact because it has been confirmed by Fox News.



Entrance to the walled city of Carcassonne.

Part of the Chateau.

An overview of the restaurant where we had lunch.


Toulouse


Toulouse is a lovely old city with many interesting areas to visit.  We did the group city walking tour, then spent a day on our own.  We had reached a fatigue point with churches and castles, so we decided to do a leisurely day of walking and sitting in a cafe.  

I've always been fascinated by canals in France from the time I was young and Dad was stationed in Nancy, France.  He was "career army" and we spent many years in foreign countries, including four years in France.  One village we lived in had a canal just a half block from our home.  It was unique in that it had a bridge on which the canal passed over the local river.  I spent many an afternoon watching the barges cross over the river on this bridge.  Kathy and I visited the place several years ago and the bridge is gone and the canal closed (it is just a grass-covered ditch now). 

Toulouse is embraced by a ring of canals including the Canal du Midi.  We found the canal and walked along the bank for a while.  Unfortunately, there was some construction and it was not as nice as I had hoped for.  We found a local sidewalk cafe and stopped for some refreshments and to watch the people go by.  The highlight was watching the local police inspect a car that was, we think, illegally parked.  Three policemen were there at least thirty minutes and were still there when we left. Were they looking for a terrorist, an illegal parker, or waiting for donuts (or croissants, it is France after all)?  We never did learn what was happening, but it sure was fun to speculate.



Toulouse, "La Ville Rose", known for its pale red brick buildings.


A tour boat on the canal.


A sidewalk cafe.

We ended our stay in Toulouse and the French portion of the trip, with a farewell dinner with our group.  We made some good friends on this trip; possibly the best group of people we have traveled with on a Grand Circle trip.    We have now completed 14 trips with GCT and this group definitely ranks in the top 13! 

Some of the group continued on with us to Andorra and Barcelona.  That will be my next and final blog in this series, look for it in the next several weeks.

Here is a link to more photos from Toulouse and Carcassonne: Toulouse and Carcassonne Photos.

Mike

Crex Meadows Summer Photogaphy

Photo buddy John Pennoyer (see his website for some great photography -https://www.impressionsofnature.net/) and I spent last Wednesday and Thursday at Crex Meadows in God's country (Wisconsin!!).  We had some good photo-ops and, sadly, a falling out over my "guide" services - more on that later.

We reached the Grantsburg area around 2:30 pm and started a reconnoiter of the Fish Lake area where John was looking for butterflies.  We found and photographed two that John identified as "Fiddlemary Astro-something" and a "Blue Little Guy".  Here is an image of the Blue Little Guy:

"Blue Little Guy"



"Fiddlemary Astro-something"


I may not have the names exactly correct, but it's close and they are cute.

After checking into the five-star Grantsburg Inn, we did a trip around Crex looking for places to shoot the milky way and possibly a sunset.  After a nice drive around the area (due to my excellent guiding), we went into Grantsburg for a gourmet dinner at T-Dawg's bar and grill.  Unfortunately, the sunset was a bust (very few clouds, only on the horizon, and they blocked the sun).  We went back to the Inn for a nap and ventured back out at 10:30 for our night photography.  We were treated to the milky way and several meteors.  Here are a couple of my favorite shots.


Milky Way looking towards Grantsburg (thus the light pollution).

Stars over an old oak.

We photographed until 1:00am and headed back to the Inn for a restful night. 

At 4:30am we crawled out of bed and headed out to Phantom Lake for a possible sunrise.  That turned out to be the highlight of the trip.  We got to photograph a beautiful pink sunrise over a calm reflective bay on Phantom Lake.







A great trip!

Now for the sad part.  My photo partner (henceforth "client 1") accused me of leading him on the wrong route as we left Crex.  I felt it was a much nicer route and one "client 1" had never been on.  As a result of this, "client 1" refused to pay for my services (which at $500 an hour seems fair to me).  In addition, "client 1" dropped his camera and long lens on my coffee cup, resulting in the loss of at least 50% of my morning joe. 

I have been in touch with my lawyer, Ima Frawd (of the firm Ware, Dafug, Awee) and Ima assures me we have a solid case.  Ima is a world-renowned guide lawyer and should strike fear into the heart of "client 1".   He points to my sterling reputation based on my past guiding work on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the more recent lunar landings.  In addition, I have found my way home every single time I've been out - a record most of you can't claim.

I'm sure this suit will make the international press, so keep an eye on the progress.  Also, pass this blog on to your friends so that the jury pool will get the inside scope on the lawsuit.

Until next time. 

Bordeaux 2019 - River Cruise

Cruising the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers


The "River Chanson"

Click here for a Map of the area visited on this trip.  If you zoom in on the Bordeaux area you will get a good idea of the area we traveled on the ship.


The captain welcomes us to the River Chanson.

The River Chanson.
Our river cruise began in the port city of Bordeaux.  We sailed the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and ended back in Bordeaux.  As you may have noticed from the above photo, the rivers are very muddy due to the huge tides (around fourteen feet by my estimation).  As a result of the tides, the flow of the river was usually very strong and would change directions as the tide switched.  The cruise was limited as to the farthest we could go upriver due to the ancient bridges which the ship could not go under.  Grand Circle is eliminating this cruise next year and the Chanson will be moved to the Rhone River for a different cruise.

The Chanson is a small river ship that has recently been renovated.  They did a fine job making the ship both warm and inviting.  The ship includes a restaurant, bar/lounge, and a very nice deck area (which also included a bar).  We enjoyed the deck area the most but were driven down to the lounge on several occasions due to the heat (it was very hot in Europe when we were there in late June, early July).

The crew was tremendous!!  Always helpful, courteous, and enjoyable to talk with.  Most were from Eastern Europe.  One of the highlights for us was the crew talent show (they did a great job and we had lots of laughs).  The restaurant staff and the cooks were the best!  Kathy and I agree that the food (and wine) were the best we have had on a river cruise.  The efforts of the staff that you usually don't see much of also did a fine job and we appreciate their dedication and hard work.

We stopped at several towns along the rivers, including - Bourg, Blaye, Pauillac, Libourne, and St. Emilion.   Bourg is a quaint little town that is not usually visited by tourist, so it has kept its charm and old-world feel.

"You are here!"

Bourg
In Blaye, we toured the citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is noted for its defensive innovations which were added in 1685 by Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban.  The citadel was used to protect Bordeaux which is 30 miles south of Blaye.

The Porte Royale


Pauillac and Saint Emilion are two well-known wine spots in this part of France.  In Pauillac, which is in the Medoc wine region, we visited a winery to observe the process and taste some wine.  It was an interesting tour and the wine was very nice.








We did a walking tour of Saint Emilion and tried some macarons, an almond variety of the much loved French cookie.  We also bought a nice bottle of red wine that we brought home and plan to share with the kids at Christmas.

The cookie store.

We docked and spent overnight in the village of Libourne.  Here we visited a local patisserie and sampled some of the goodies (I inhaled my favorite, a chocolate eclair).   That night the town held a music festival and I walked into town to take some photos and listen to music, it was a lot of fun!

A local band rocks out!

The music festivals were also being celebrated in Bordeaux when we ended the cruise there.  On our last night on the ship, we were treated to a fireworks display related to the music festival and the "tall ships" that were in the harbor for the celebration.

Fireworks over Bordeaux harbor.

One of the tall ships from Russia.

We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the River Chanson and I sure miss the food!!

I have posted more images from this part of our trip here: Google Photos.  The best way to look at the images is to click on the first one then go through them using the right and left arrows.  If you do it this way you will see the pithy comments I made.  Also, the time stamp on the images are wrong as I forgot to change the time in the camera I used (I know I can change it, but it's not worth the effort - if you really need to know the time, add seven hours and it should be close).

The next posting will cover our stay in Toulouse, with a side trip to the walled city of Carcasonne.

Mike

Bordeaux 2019 - Nantes

Adventure Overview



Our Grand Circle Tour (GCT) trip this year was an adventure in many ways.  We had some great food and wine.  Sampled some fine French cheese and tried the local mussels.  We were treated to some tall sailing ships and fireworks in Bordeaux.  And we happened to be in Barcelona during the Gay Pride Festival.  The trip also included several local tours were we learned about the history of the different areas we visited.  All in all, it was a busy, but fun trip.  

The trip included a visit to the Bordeaux region of France on a riverboat sailing the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers.  We began our trip in the city of Nantes, followed by the river cruise, three days in Toulouse (with a day trip to Carcassonne),  a couple of days in the tiny, but lovely, country of Andorra, and finally three days in Barcelona.  

I will be publishing five blogs about this trip.  This first blog covers the time we spent in Nantes.  The following blogs will document the river cruise, Toulouse and Carcassonne, Andorra, and Barcelona.  Hopefully breaking up the trip into five blogs will make it less time consuming for my adoring followers and easier to enjoy.  At the end of the blogs, I will include a link to the Google Photo albums for each area (I will try to keep the number of images in each album to 50-75).

Nantes


The old town


Nantes was founded by the Celts in 70 BC.  It is located on the Loire River in west-central France. Our first impression of the city was not so good.  The ride from the airport to our hotel meandered through the industrial outskirts of the city and it was not very pretty!  But once we reached our hotel in the old town area of the city, we were pleasantly surprised.  This area of the city has some fine bars and restaurants and many old interesting buildings.  We had a walking tour of the old town including a visit to the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne.  Nantes is also known as the birthplace of Jules Verne, one of my favorite authors.

Our hotel the Radisson Blu Nantes was nicely situated for walking to lunch or dinner and to all areas of the old town.  We also used public transportation, the tram, to get back from the Isle of Nantes where we saw the machines (more about that below).

I highly recommend a visit to this city if you are traveling in the area!  

The Chateau.

Interesting art in the old city.

Machines of the Isle of Nantes


The highlight of Nantes for both Kathy and me was a trip to the "Machines of the Isle of Nantes".  The machines were inspired by the works of Jules Verne.  They are extremely clever and lots of fun!  The machines move through the use of steam, gears, and pistons.  They create an abundance of noise and motion.    It was particularly fun to see the reaction of the kids to the machines (including the elderly kids in our group).

These are some of the machines including the most famous machine the Grand Elephant. 

Riding the caterpillar.

Huge Ant

The spider!

The elephant sprays on the crowd.

This gives you an idea of the size of the elephant.

The machines visit also included a ride on the merry-go-round for us older folks (who are really young at heart).  The carousel was huge and included rides on two levels.

The carousel

The "Game of Thrones" ride


La Rochelle


We ended the Nantes portion of the trip with a bus ride to the ship in Bordeaux.  Along the way, we spent some time in La Rochelle.  Located on the Bay of Biscay, La Rochelle is a beautiful little town which was featured in the Alexandre Dumas novel "The Three Musketeers".  We had a walking tour then a nice lunch.  Weather was gorgeous and the trip to our ship was relaxing and interesting.

The harbor with the old entrance towers.

Have fun deciding what they are talking about!

The sailing tradition is reflected in the art in a local church.



Nantes was a great start to our trip!  I've added more photos to a Google album which you can view here: Nantes Photo Album

Spring Wildflowers 2019

Pennington Bog


My photo buddy John and I made a short trip to the Itasca State Park area in northern Minnesota.  It was late May and John wanted to get some images of the Calypso Orchid.  We started our search at the Pennington Bog.  Pennington is a nature area that requires a permit to enter.  It is a delicate area with a variety of wildflowers throughout the spring and summer.  Our goal was to photograph the Calypsos in a group (John has single flower images from a prior visit, but no group shots).  We spent most of the morning in the bog fighting mosquitoes and ticks.  Wearing the "bug tamer" and using repellents helped but the bugs were still a nuisance.

Our efforts resulted in spotting about a dozen Calypsos, but none in a nice group.  We photographed what we could and called it a morning.  The Calypso is a beautiful orchid living in a challenging area.

Fairy-slipper (Calypso bulbosa)

These guys are tiny, 3-6 inches tall and a challenge to photograph (the old knees feel it after a morning of kneeling down).

Lake Bemidji State Park

After a quick lunch in the car (the bugs were so bad, we couldn't use the picnic area!), we headed to Lake Bemidji State Park to see if we could find the Calypso in the Big Bog Lake area of the park.  No luck, but a nice day for a hike.  The trail in this bog is restricted to a boardwalk, so it is tough to do any photography even if we did find the flower.

Big Bog Lake

Itasca State Park

The remainder of our two-day visit was spent in Itasca State Park. This is one of my favorite Minnesota state parks.  It has great trails, a variety of flowers, and many activities year round.  The park employees are friendly and do a great job of making this a fun place to visit.  

We hiked the Nicollet trail searching for the Calypso, but once again we were skunked.  We did find some other wildflowers and had a good time shooting them.  

Round-lobed hepatica

Large-flowered bellwort
The bellworts were everywhere in the park.  We found multiple areas to shoot them in.

We also saw plenty of trillium.  There were carpets of them in many spots along the road.  We came back one evening to shoot them in the nice soft sunset light.  We also got a nice sunset over the lake.  The sun was bright orange due to some wildfires in Canada.  The only thing missing was some nice clouds.

Snow Trillium

Bellworts near a Hobbit house

Fishing at sunset
The first night of our stay was cool and clear, so we decided to do a night shoot at the headwaters of the Mississippi.  We sat in the car for about an hour and a half until the night sky appeared.  We wanted to get a shot of the milky way and had to wait until midnight when the fat part of the galaxy rose over the horizon.  We also tried some star trail photography.

The Mississippi River headwaters

The milky way over the Mississippi River headwaters

A composite of 60 thirty second images
The Northstar is the focal point that the others rotate around.
I really enjoy night photography, but it sure is nice having a companion with in case the bears' attack!!

Another fun trip with my pal John.  The flowers were a little out of synch due to the weather we had this spring.  But, all-in-all, we had a great time.