A holiday weekend

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Last weekend, my daughter Katie and I kicked off the holiday season with three events: The Holly & Ivy holiday home tour and Christkindlmarket in Des Moines, and the Beautiful Land Holiday Market north of Ames.

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We started at the historic Salisbury House, a 42-room manor estate lovingly decorated with period antiques and artwork year-round but especially gorgeous at this time of year, with each room decked out by local designers. The annual Holly & Ivy tour is a fundraiser for the Salisbury House Foundation ($20 admission), and this year it also included a holiday market at the Central Presbyterian Church, two private homes, and West End Architectural Salvage.

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Salisbury House kept us busy snapping photos and oohing and aahing over each room – including the bathrooms – filled with holiday themed decorations, ranging from the feminine Victorian dressing room of the home’s original matriarch to a modern take on a small dining area. There was a masculine hunting-themed room, a large dining table fully covered with fancy dishes and holiday greenery, and Christmas trees in pretty much every room.

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After visiting Salisbury House (4025 Tonawanda Drive), we ate lunch just down the street at La Mie (841 42nd St.), one of my favorite bakeries/cafes in Des Moines. Any excuse will do to stop for a to-die-for raisin-pecan scone or almond croissant – or one of their very nice sandwiches or salads, both of which we enjoyed for lunch. It doesn’t get any better than this.

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With our tummies happily filled, we headed for the historic Owl’s Head neighborhood. I was even more excited to see these private homes decorated for Christmas than I was to see Salisbury House, because my friend Kate’s home (above) was on the tour and I knew it would be incredible.

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It was! Kate and her mother both have impeccable taste in interior design – and a large collection of Christmas decorations – and her house was just filled to the brim with Christmas trees, poinsettias, holiday dishes, greenery, and family heirlooms. I love Kate’s house any time of year, but especially at the holidays. We lingered there for a long time, talking to Kate and her parents and soaking in the history of the house. (It was built in 1905 and was once featured on the cover of Midwest Living magazine.) The whole first floor was beautifully adorned, but I especially loved the dining room (pictured above) and the porch.

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We finally tore ourselves away from Kate’s home and walked down the street to another home on the tour (above), this one built in 1907. The exterior of this house is a bit fancier, with a large front porch and high gables, and the holiday decorations inside were very nice.

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From there, we drove downtown and walked through the Christkindlmarket. This European-styled Christmas market featured hand-crafted toys and ornaments, European foods, German beer, and Glühwein, a type of warm, mulled wine. I have to say I was disappointed in everything but the mulled wine, which was pretty tasty. Otherwise, I didn’t think there was much to see or do there, and for the most part it didn’t seem very European.

We also visited the Beautiful Land Holiday Market held at Prairie Moon Winery/Alluvial Brewery just north of Ames. This event is a “sister market” of the more well-known Lucky Star Market that’s been happening a couple times a year for the past several years in Ames, sometimes at Prairie Moon and other times at Research Park in south Ames.

I thought this particular market was especially nice, with a lot of hand-crafted items – jewelry, paper products, hand-knitted scarves and hats – but also plants, food items, and antiques. I always want to buy things for myself at these markets, and I struggle to remind myself that I’m there to shop for others. I did buy a few small gifts, but I succumbed to my love of all things holiday and bought a couple of wooden snowmen and an antique Santa mug.

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Thanksgiving in the mountains

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It seems like every time I turn around this year, I’m in Colorado. It’s no coincidence that my daughter, Lauren, moved to Denver in January. Since helping her move, I’ve visited three more times, most recently over the Thanksgiving holiday.

I traveled this time with my husband, Dave, and our other daughter, Katie. We actually didn’t spend much time in Denver, because I booked us a cabin in Estes Park where we could relax, spread out, cook meals, and enjoy the holiday together.

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It was awesome. We visited Rocky Mountain National Park, where there was snow at Bear Lake (above and top) but easy walking everywhere else we went. We took a nice walk around Lily Lake (below) the day we arrived. The weather was wonderful for late November.

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We saw a few elk in the national park, but many more in the town of Estes Park. They were everywhere we looked – a huge herd of 30 or more traveling together through town. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother to take pictures.

Once we got settled into our cabin, which was located just a block and a half north of the main street through downtown, we braved the Safeway to buy some provisions (not a smart thing to do the night before Thanksgiving, but we needed milk and beer and stuff) and then ordered pizza. I made myself familiar with the kitchen and made some food for the next day.

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On Thanksgiving, I baked a pumpkin pecan bread pudding for breakfast while we watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – one of my favorite things all year. We had a lazy day, just playing games, eating snacks, watching TV, and taking a walk through town. Oh, and we had the traditional playing of Adam Sandler’s Thanksgiving Song and the reading of Katie’s friend Emma’s Thanksgiving homework from third grade. (Emma is a vegan, and she did NOT like the idea that we celebrate Thanksgiving by eating turkey, even in third grade. It’s the funniest thing ever.)

We had Thanksgiving dinner reservations at The Stanley Hotel, for which we got all spiffed up (unnecessarily, based on what other people were wearing, but still nice). The Stanley is all old and fancy and haunted, and we all think it’s pretty cool, mainly because Stephen King got the idea to write The Shining when he was staying there back in the 1970s, and The Shining is one of our favorite books/movies.

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After dinner (nothing special, but overpriced – that’s my two-second review), we took a ghost tour of the hotel. It was a hoot. We had a hilarious tour guide named Voo-Drew (he used to do ghost tours in New Orleans) who showed us some of the “most haunted” parts of the hotel and its outbuildings. I’m still cynical about the ghost thing, but I didn’t expect to have so much fun. He told some great stories — like the things the spirits do to unmarried but nevertheless cohabitating guests.

So that was Thanksgiving. The next morning, we went back to Rocky Mountain – it was a gorgeous day – and then back to The Stanley for some daytime photos. Here’s the whole gang:

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The hotel had added more holiday decorations overnight (above). We ate lunch in downtown Estes Park, did some shopping, and found a nice little coffee shop. Back at the cabin, we killed some time playing games (I actually beat my family at Monopoly – this may be a first), watching Christmas movies, and drinking boozy cider.

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The highlight of the day actually came tonight, with Estes Park’s annual Catch the Glow parade. We got to the parade route early, and lots of people had already staked out their spot. This is apparently a very big deal for Estes. By the time the parade started at 5:30 p.m. there were tons of people there.

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The event was great – definitely a small-town parade, but with a lot of holiday flair. We loved the lights throughout the downtown area. The weather was still very mild, and everyone was in a festive mood.

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What a fun thing to do the day after Thanksgiving! Much better than Black Friday shopping!

 

The farmers’ market moves inside for the holidays

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The Downtown Winter Farmers’ Market in Des Moines has become something of a love-hate tradition in my family. These market events happen every year just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I love them because you can pick up yummy stuff and fun gifts for the holidays – but I hate them because they are so crowded you can barely move.

Unlike the normal Downtown Des Moines Farmers’ Market that’s held in the Court Avenue District from May through October, the winter market is located inside Capital Square and Kaleidoscope at the Hub. The indoor location prevents the dog jams of the outdoor market, but is extra congested because of the narrow hallways.

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I went to the Thanksgiving market yesterday and managed to survive. Farmers, bakers, and crafters were out in force, offering jams and jellies, root vegetables, honey, bread, pastries, meat, eggs, birdhouses, hand-knitted caps and scarves, greenery, wine, carved wooden Santas, jewelry, cheese, salsa, soap, popcorn, granola, nut butters, teas, cookies, pies, and a ton of other stuff.

I bought bags of popcorn, an acorn squash, an almond croissant, a jar of jelly, a chunk of artisanal cheese, and a few packets of those handy mixes to make dips and cheese balls.

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If you missed this market, you still have another chance: The next one will be held Dec. 15-16 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the same location. I’ll probably be there.

 

One last fall weekend

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Fall is my favorite season, and I like to milk it for all it’s worth. I love the cool temperatures and fall colors and talking long walks without getting all sweaty.

This has been a really busy fall for me, with September trips to France and Colorado, and lots of projects going on at work. I didn’t get to do my usual trip to northern Minnesota, which pretty much breaks my heart (I literally had to block my Superior Hiking Trail Facebook group because it made me too sad to see what a spectacular fall they were having on the North Shore).

The last week of October was Homecoming at Iowa State, and it was going to be crazy-busy in my office. So, I decided the week BEFORE Homecoming that I would take a day off and go hiking in northeast Iowa.

I took off Friday morning for Decorah, to walk the Trout Run Trail. I’ve written about Decorah many times. It’s one of my favorite places in Iowa, but it takes a long time to get up there from Ames. I left early and got there just after 10 a.m., parked my car in the lot behind Water Street, the main commercial area, and took off walking.

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What a beautiful day for a long walk! I’ve walked at least part of this trail three times before, and I did the whole 11 miles once, in June 2016. I was there this past July and was disappointed that I didn’t have time to walk the complete trail, because it’s so much fun.

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Today’s walk was pretty wonderful, with subtle fall color, very little bike traffic, and temperatures in the mid-70s. Very warm for late October! I started at the beginning of the trail (near downtown) and worked my way around, stopping only a couple of times to eat a snack. My favorite section is from about mile markers 6 to 8, with beautiful scenery and challenging switch-backs (below).

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By the end of the walk, I was tired and wanted something more substantial to eat, so I walked through downtown and grabbed some food before heading to my next destination: Marquette.

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I had booked a room at the Cobblestone Inn & Suites in tiny Marquette (population 375). The town is situated right on the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, across the bridge from Prairie du Chien, Wisc. I chose Marquette because it’s close to Effigy Mounds, and I wanted to hike there on Saturday.

I actually regret not staying in McGregor, the town less than a mile south of Marquette. There’s much more to do there – shops, antiques, restaurants – and there are a few small B&Bs and inns I probably could have stayed in. Marquette has the one hotel, a casino/riverboat (below), one restaurant, the Eagle’s Landing Winery, and a couple of antiques shops.

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I walked around the town and went to bed early. My room was comfortable and quiet – except when the huge, noisy train came by at all hours of the night. Turns out the railroad tracks are about 10 yards from the hotel. Yikes!

I survived the night, ate a quick breakfast at the hotel the next morning, and headed to Effigy Mounds. The National Park site officially opens at 8:30, and that’s when I pulled into the parking lot. Mine was one of three cars, and I think the other two may have been park service vehicles.

It was a chilly morning, and the forecast called for a chance of rain, but it turned out to be a glorious fall day. I’d been here a couple of times before but never hiked the full area (I limited myself to the north unit that’s accessible from the visitor center parking lot; there’s also a south unit with another 4+ miles of hiking trails).

Effigy Mounds is, of course, best known for its Native American mounds, created during the Late Woodland period about 1,400 years ago. The national monument features 206 mounds, 31 of which are in the form of animal effigies, mostly bears and birds. A typical mound is 2-4 feet high, 40 feet wide, and 80 feet long, but some are larger — the Great Bear Mound measures 137 feet long and 70 feet wide.

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It’s tough to get a feel for the shape of the mounds when you’re standing next to them – they really should be viewed from above. It’s harder still to get a decent picture of them, because in two dimensions they don’t look like much (see above).

But it’s very cool to walk among the mounds and imagine this area when the Woodland Indians were living here. It’s also just a gorgeous area, with towering trees and fabulous views of the Mississippi River. The fall color was at its peak when I was there.

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I started my hike early and had the whole place to myself – up, up the steep climb to Eagle Rock and Fire Point views, on to the Great Bear Mound Group, to “Twin Views” (of the river), the “Third Scenic View,” and up and around to Hanging Rock – a spectacular vantage point. The hike is challenging the further you go toward Hanging Rock (about three and a half miles from the visitor center), but the payoff is worth it.

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When I turned around and started back, I began to encounter other hikers, and by the time I got to the Little Bear Mound Group, there were dozens of visitors enjoying the site. When I got back to my car, the parking lot was completely full.

I ate lunch at Café McGregor and poked around the shops on Main Street, then headed home, my need for a fall color outing fully satisfied.

 

Fall: Colorado

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When we drove to Colorado in late September to see our daughter Lauren, who lives in Denver, the forecast was iffy at best.

The weather had been extremely warm in Denver all week – in the lower 80s – but the Indian summer was about to be replaced by cooler, rainy weather over the weekend. And in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we hoped to see fall color and elk herds, the forecast was for snow.

Ah, weather. You fickle travel foe. You can never predict these things when you plan your trips months in advance.

We had scheduled our trip to Colorado for the last weekend in September primarily because it was Lauren’s birthday. And then we found out that Frozen the Musical was staging its pre-Broadway run in Denver, so we snagged tickets. We were locked in, weather forecast be damned.

Dave and I drove out on Friday, wearing shorts. We met Lauren for dinner near our hotel at the Denver Tech Center.

The next morning we ate breakfast at Snooze, the “a.m. eatery” Lauren and Katie and I enjoyed when we visited last spring. This time I was disappointed. The restaurant still had that fun Jetsons vibe, but I made the mistake of ordering sweet potato pancakes and they came drenched in so much syrup I couldn’t eat them. They were way too sweet. (In hindsight, why didn’t I just send them back?)

After breakfast, we drove toward Colorado Springs, keeping our fingers crossed that the rain would hold off. We decided to go to the Royal Gorge; I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and I didn’t really even remember it. It’s pretty touristy, but fun.

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We walked across the pedestrian bridge (very windy!), took the gondola across the gorge, walked around, and took a lot of photos (shown above and below).

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Afterwards, we were hungry so we drove back into Colorado Springs and ate lunch at Mod Pizza, then headed to the Garden of the Gods (below). By then it was raining. We hadn’t walked more than a few yards when it really started pouring, so we went back to the car.

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And that was it for our nice weather for the day. We drove back north toward Denver, and it just rained harder and got foggier the farther we drove. It was a mess. We really wanted to be outside, but instead we shopped at an outlet mall and then went to a movie.

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Sunday was Lauren’s birthday. We started the day with brunch at a fun restaurant called Linger (above). It’s in the old Olinger Funeral Home building downtown. I really liked that place – the food was tasty, the menu was creative, and the atmosphere was very cool. I have a special affinity for funeral homes since my dad was a funeral director; I actually lived in a funeral home for a short time when I was a little girl.

We spent the rest of the day in Denver, going to dispensaries (birthday freebies!), thrift stores, the Tattered Cover bookstore, and a big, loud sports bar. It was a fun day. By late afternoon, we decided we needed to get dressed up for our evening at the theatre.

It was a cold, rainy night. We had reservations at Maggiano’s, an Italian restaurant downtown, and then tickets to Frozen at the Buell Theater. We were surrounded by little girls dressed like Elsa at both places.

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I don’t have little kids, so I’ve only seen Frozen the movie a couple of times. The stage musical is similar but has added some new musical numbers and eliminated some of the goofy Disney-movie elements. Although the show definitely appeals to families with young children, I thought it was incredible. Our seats were fifth-row center, and I found the stagecraft absolutely mesmerizing. The stage turns to ice before your very eyes! And the cast – wow, I didn’t think anyone could sing “Let It Go” like Idina Menzel. But then I heard Caissie Levy’s version and she killed it. (It’s no surprise that Levy also followed Menzel’s role as Elphaba in Broadway’s Wicked.) And Patti Murin (who has played Glinda in Wicked) is adorable as Anna. Mattea Conforti, the young actress who played Anna as a child, was equally talented and adorable. I predict this show, which opens on Broadway in late February, will run for a very long time. Maybe forever.

We left Denver Monday morning at 8 a.m. and headed toward Estes Park. The day was gloomy but not actually raining. Just before we got to our destination around 10 a.m., the skies cleared. We had been reading forecasts of cold (as low as 19 degrees) and snow, so we were really thrilled to see the sun, and it stayed nice the whole day. We were amazed! We went right into Rocky Mountain National Park. Our goal was to see (and hear) the elk rut.

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We entered at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station just outside Estes Park and headed for Moraine Park, where we were told the elk sightings would be best. We saw gorgeous scenery and several elk, including a couple of males battling it out over the females.

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We drove Trail Ridge Road as far as we could; it was closed at Many Parks Curve. (I just checked, and the road is now closed completely until summer 2018.) At that high altitude, we saw lots of snow still on the ground from the day before.

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We went into Estes Park town for lunch at a little pie café. It was actually warm enough to sit outside to eat.

Later, we went back into the park in search of more elk sightings, and we saw plenty:

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We also walked around Bear Lake (below) and visited Sprague Lake. It was just a beautiful afternoon.

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As we were heading out of the park, we saw the largest herd of elk we’d seen all day. They were near the Beaver Meadows Visitors Center. We stopped our car, got out, and started taking pictures.

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Before long, the line of cars was backed up as far as we could see, and the herd was walking among the cars and posing for pictures for visitors. One lone male elk was trying his best to keep control of the situation, but the females and young ones were just ambling about. A couple of national park rangers were there, trying to control the traffic. It was like rush hour, with elk.

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We finally left the park and headed to The Stanley, the historic resort hotel made famous by Stephen King’s book, The Shining. We walked around the exterior and then went inside, drawn first by the welcoming porch and then by the cozy bar.

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We pulled up three barstools and ordered from a drink menu that included Redrum Punch and Shining Ale. (Not that they’re capitalizing on book fame.) I ordered a Redrum Ale.

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By then, I was pretty tired and ready to head to our hotel, Mary’s Lake Lodge, but we had to stop one more time and take pictures of another herd of elk, this time right by the road. I’m sure if you lived here, this would get tiresome, but I loved it!

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We checked into our lodge, which is big and rambling and has gorgeous views of the mountains.

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The restaurant inside the lodge smelled mighty welcoming, so we ate dinner there and called it a night. We left the next morning for our long drive back to Ames.

Our next visit to Estes Park is coming up in November, and I’m already looking forward to it!

Provincial French Countryside: Part trois (Paris!)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the last of three installments of my travelogue:

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PARIS

The focus of this tour was the French countryside, and we had seen some incredibly beautiful farmland, fields of sunflowers, adorable cows, and charming villages in the Loire Valley, Normandy, and the Dordogne region in our travels over the past two weeks. Paris seemed like an afterthought, and I’d been here twice before. Besides, we had only one full day here, and I was ready to go home.

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And then our motor coach entered the city, and I was surrounded by Parisian streets and the people and the historic architecture, and then I saw the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and I remembered HOW MUCH I FREAKING LOVE PARIS.

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Our Paris lodging for two nights was the Hotel Chateau Frontenac. This elegant old hotel was located close to the Seine, close to the Eiffel Tower, and close to the Champs Elysées – so it was a GREAT location. My fourth-floor room had a balcony, which made me extremely happy in and of itself, and when I walked out on it and realized that I could see the Eiffel Tower, well, you should have seen my face. I was ridiculously excited about this. I couldn’t wait to start exploring.

It was already late afternoon, and our group went on a brief orientation tour, led by our tireless tour guide, Anita. Out the front door of our hotel, if you turned right you ended up on the Champs Elysées within minutes. Turn left from the hotel, then left again, and you were a few blocks from the river. Easy, right?

I tried to get a small group together to take a night cruise on the Seine. Everyone seemed tired. It had been a long two weeks, and a long day of travel. We sat together for a while at a sidewalk café, soaking in the sights and sounds of Paris, ordered some beer and wine, and talked it over. There was a restaurant nearby at which everyone wanted to eat. It was very meaty. And I didn’t want to take time to eat; I wanted to see the city. So I headed off on my own.

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It was a few short blocks to the closest bridge that crossed the Seine. I could already see the Eiffel Tower, so I just walked in that general direction.

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I love how that structure, huge as it is, can be hidden when you’re walking through the neighborhoods and then just BAM! There it is, big as life at the end of the cross-street. It’s almost like a game of hide-and-seek. I took a million pictures. And then, there it was in its full glory, surrounded by a thousand people (and a security fence). The sky was beginning to show its dusky color, and I was truly, madly happy to be there.

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After taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower from every conceivable angle, I walked back toward the river and viewed it again from the bridges, where it looked even more gorgeous in the distance, and watched the sun go down.

I was trying to decide if I really wanted to go on a river cruise; it was getting cold, and I’d be walking back to the hotel by myself in the dark. But what else was I going to do? Sit in the hotel? Go to a bar? NO, I was in Paris, by god, and I was going to do this.

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I walked down the entrance to where the boats were docked – how many are there, anyway? I think there were at least 20 cruising up and down this short stretch of river already, filled with hundreds if not thousands of people each – and asked for a ticket. I’ve forgotten now how much it was, but it was really reasonable (less than 20 euros), and the next one would leave in 45 minutes.

The whole time I was on the cruise – and, in fact, pretty much the whole time I was near the river today and tomorrow – I could NOT get the lyrics out of my head from the Audition Song from “La La Land”:

Leapt, without looking
and tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
she spent a month sneezing
but said she would do it again

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish, as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

 
Ah, if I had to have an ear worm stuck in my head, I’m glad it was this one, because I love it. Tomorrow I’d get a second one stuck in my brain, but tonight it was just this one.

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The boat was large, and it filled up quickly. I found a seat on the upper deck, outside, knowing it would be cold, but refusing to sit inside where the view would be restricted. By the time we launched, it was already pretty dark.

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I was not disappointed in the experience. In fact, it was pretty exhilarating. (Or maybe I was just freezing.) The “tour” itself is lame: a recorded voice, repeating the script in a number of languages, about what we were seeing on both sides of the canal. Many of the buildings were lit up; it was Saturday night, so there were party cruises and groups dancing to music on the shore line. Many of the tourists on the boat with me were frantically taking selfies in the dark with their annoying selfie sticks. The bridges were fabulous. We cruised past the Grand Palais, the Assemblee Nationale, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Ste-Chapelle, and Notre Dame (below).

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I tried valiantly to take pictures of all this, but it was very dark and we were moving and my camera only has so much capability. Most of my shots are pretty bad, but a few were decent.

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Eventually, the boat turned around, and we cruised back along the other side of Notre Dame and Ste-Chapelle. I thought we’d stop when we got back to where we started, but happily we continued on to get the most fabulous river-views of the Eiffel Tower, lit up with a gazillion watts of light against the night sky.

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I was a happy girl.

Once we finally docked, it took forever to get off the boat, and then I had the challenge of finding my hotel in the dark. A hotel I had been to only once, during the day. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the cross-street? But, happily, I found it without getting lost. And then realized that I never had dinner. By this time, it was really too late to eat. So I went to the café across from the hotel, sat at an outdoor table, and ordered a beer. Ahhhh! What a great night!

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The next day, the plan for our group was to take a bus tour of the city and then visit the Louvre. Much as I love the Louvre – I mean, it’s the Louvre!!! – I’ve been there twice before and really wanted to spend more time outside exploring.

So, I ate breakfast with the group and then went off on my own (as did a few others who had been to Paris before and wanted to spent time in the Musée d’Orsay or other museums). My goals were to walk the city, go to the top of Notre Dame, and eat a chocolate éclair. Pretty simple, really.

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It was raining when I started out. Umbrella up and camera tucked under my arm, I set out walking along the Seine. Even with the wet, chilly weather, the canal was filled with boat after boat of rowing teams – a lovely sight.

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I continued along the Left Bank of the river until I reached Blvd. Saint Germain, a street I’d walked along when I was here in 2008 with Dave. The street is filled with wonderful shops (all closed, since it was Sunday morning), cafés, restaurants, and historic architecture. And it goes for miles, so you don’t have to worry about inadvertently getting lost.

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The rain stopped. I walked past charming patisseries with windows filled with macarons and croissants. I wanted to get to Notre Dame before it got crowded (yeah, right), so I turned on Blvd. Saint Michel and headed to the cathedral.

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Boy, did I screw up Notre Dame. It makes me appreciate having a tour guide. Mistake #1: The line to get into the cathedral was very long. I stood in it, enjoying the view. It moved slowly, but soon I was inside. A church service was going on. This wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to go up the 400 steps to the tower. So I asked the woman in the gift shop, and she said I had to stand in a different line, on the side of the cathedral. Once I walked over there, it made sense. I had done this before with Dave. I got in line. That was mistake #2.

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A lot has changed in nine years. Now, instead of just standing in line, there’s an app to get a timed ticket for the tour. Who knew? Since I didn’t have a ticket, I was shown the line for the kiosk, which would assign you a time for your tour. My time was an hour and 15 minutes later. I had a lot of time to kill.

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I walked back the way I’d come, thinking, hmmmmm, those pastries would taste pretty good about now. I found one of the little shops, filled with the most amazing-looking goodies, and ordered a coffee with a chocolate éclair and ate it on the sidewalk. (Chocolate éclair: check!)

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Even with the leisurely coffee break, I got back to Notre Dame too soon and still had a ton of time before my tour (which, by the way, was free today for some reason. It’s usually 10 euros).

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Walking toward the cathedral, the bells began to play (do they do this each day? Or just on Sunday?) and I was overwhelmed with emotion. What is it about bells that does that to me? I freaked out in Venice a few years ago, crying happy tears. I began to think about Victor Hugo and Quasimodo, the lonely bell ringer in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Disney soundtrack became the second ear worm, with songs like “Out There” and “The Bells of Notre Dame” stuck in my head while I waited my turn.

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I also had time to gawk at the ornate Gothic architecture of this medieval building. Did you know it took nearly 200 years to complete?

The line moved slowly. My ticket time came and went. We were moved from one waiting line to another to another, then we were finally allowed to enter the building. This was sort of my moment of truth. In 2008, I was out of shape and had a really difficult time climbing the stairs. I thought I would A) never make it to the top and B) die trying. I exercise regularly now, but I’m also nine years older. Would I be able to climb 400 steep stairs to the top of the tower?

It turns out I can. In fact, I had absolutely no trouble making it to the top. It helps that you stop twice on the way up: once in the gift shop and once on a lower viewing area before getting to the very top of the tower.

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The first viewing area (officially called the Chimera gallery) is actually my favorite, because that’s where you are face-to-face with the gargoyles – fantastic birds, hybrid beasts, and mythical monsters perching on the towers. I don’t know what I love best about Notre Dame, the gargoyles or the view of the city. They are both all-time highlights of my travels. I love, love, love this place.

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I took a ridiculous number of photos. I wanted to share the experience with someone, but I was with a scattered group of strangers. The view was even more spectacular than I remembered. The gargoyles were so familiar! (Hello, Mr. Pelican! Hello, whatever you are, you gross thing – and what are you eating?) It was sort of like visiting old friends. My fellow tourists and I were allowed to walk up some steep stairs into one of the actual bell chambers.

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And then, up and up again to the very top of the tower. The view from here is so incredible; better than the view from the Eiffel Tower in my opinion. You can see the whole city, all the way to Sacré-Coeur in the Montmartre area.

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Then the bells began to play again. Thrilling! I was in utter bliss.

And then it’s down, down, down the skinny spiral staircase, so tight and corkscrewy that I got dizzy and had to hold on to the handrail. Then, once back on land and out into the sun, it was bright and disorienting. I sort of forgot where I was and just stumbled off.

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The rest of the day was dreamy: Walking around the Louvre and Tuileries garden (above). Stopping at the Musée d’Orsay and so very much wanting to go in, but seeing the line (and the time on my watch) and walking on. Stopping for a beer at Les Deux Magots café on Saint Germain. Window shopping in the fashionable stores that were, fortunately for my credit card, still closed.

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I meandered back to the Eiffel Tower, taking more unnecessary photos, because I just can’t help myself. And then the sky darkened and it looked like a big storm was coming my way, so I headed back to the hotel.

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By now it was about 4 o’clock. We had our farewell dinner tonight, so I needed to get dressed up for that, and I needed to pack my suitcases because tomorrow morning’s flight would be leaving early. But I was so happy. Today was an all-time Top 10 Day. I wanted to stay here forever. 

Provincial French Countryside: Part deux (Saumur to Crépon)

Last month I hosted a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with four couples from North Carolina State, on a two-week tour of the provincial French countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. Here’s the second of three installments of my travelogue:

SAUMUR, IN THE HEART OF THE LOIRE VALLEY

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The first thing I noticed when we arrived in Saumur was a castle (the French call them “chateaux”) that looked a whole lot like Cinderella’s castle in Disney World.

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The second thing I noticed, upon checking in to the Hotel Anne d’Anjou (located within whistling distance of the Cinderella-worthy castle) was that my room had a view of the Loire River. Spectacular! I threw open my window and started taking pictures.

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Then I took a walk before meeting our group to have a toast in the hotel courtyard (below) with some local bubbly that we can’t call champagne but looks and tastes like champagne.

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It had been a long day on the motorcoach, and we were tired. After an orientation walk led by our wonderful tour director, Anita, a group of us slouched into a green-awning-ed brasserie and ordered a drink and some comfort food (i.e., pasta) and then called it a night.

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The next morning, we had a late start, so I slept in and then took a long walk after breakfast. Saumur is picturesque as hell…everywhere you look there’s something historic or colorful or fun to photograph. I walked across the bridge that I could see from my room, and looking back, the view of the Chateau de Saumur and its surroundings was spectacular, don’t you agree? I also loved the colorful umbrellas hanging in a couple of areas of town…just for fun.

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Our group gathered mid-morning to drive a short distance to the Bouvet Ladubay winery, where we took a tour of the sparkling-wine-making process inside a cool, damp cave. I’ve never been a huge fan of champagne-like drinks, but after our tour, we were able to taste five varietals, and I totally changed my mind. We tasted three dry and semi-dry whites, a delicate rose, and a fuller-bodied red. All were excellent. And, lucky for me, some of my fellow travelers purchased bottles that I would be able to share later on in the trip.

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After that, we had a free afternoon in Saumur. What to do? We had a lot of options, but a group of us decided to pool our resources and take a taxi out to the Fontevraud L’Abbaye Royale. But first, a smaller group of ladies grabbed a quick lunch at a creperie near our hotel. I ordered a galette (a buckwheat crepe) filled with all kinds of delicousness: mushrooms, emmentaler cheese, leeks, and tomatoes, with a balsamic-dressed side salad.

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Funny story about this lunch: Our group wanted separate checks, but we were having a hard time explaining this to our server, so a couple of French ladies at the table next to us tried to help explain it to her. Well, we didn’t get separate checks, but we did get four large mugs filled with boozy cider! We all had a good laugh, drank the cider, and got our checks split up at the cash register after all.

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Okay, so back to the Royal Abbey (pictured above and below). It’s located near Chinon, in Anjou, which is not terribly far from Saumur. It was founded in 1101 and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history is all about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, and it was disabled as a monastery during the French Revolution. For some time, it was a prison. Now it’s just freaking beautiful, with tremendous architecture, hallways and rooms that go on forever, little nooks and crannies to peek into, gardens to stroll through, and benches to relax upon. It was a very fun and unstructured visit. There’s even a spooky crypt.

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After our taxi driver delivered us back at the Hotel Anne d’Anjou, I went for another walk, hoping to see The View with evening light (below), and then we had a gathering at the hotel before dinner. Our meal tonight was at the les Ménestrels restaurant located right behind our hotel; the food and wine was superb.

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The next day we headed to the Chateau de Chenonceau, the queen mother of all chateaux. Originally built as a fortress to keep intruders out, Chenonceau is a Renaissance masterpiece considered the most romantic of all the chateaux in this part of France. It’s actually built across the River Cher.

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Inside, I loved the furnishings and the floral decorations (above). But outside…wow! The views of the chateau from every angle! The gardens that out-gardened every garden I’d ever seen before! I was awe-struck. There’s also a maze that I didn’t have time to tour. Everything about this place was spectacular. I could have easily spent a whole day there.

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But we had to depart. We had lunch reservations at a restaurant called La Cave – actually located in a cave. Fun!

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As luck would have it, the weather was nice today, so we got a bonus visit to another garden at Chateau Villandry. These very formal gardens (above and below) were eye-popping from our initial overhead viewpoint, and then we were able to walk among them for an eye-level view. I don’t remember ever seeing such beautiful gardens before…and we got to see two in one day.

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NORMANDY

The next day it rained. And it was cold and windy. I was so looking forward to this day, because we were visiting Mont-St-Michel and then heading to our next overnight location in Normandy.

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Mont-St-Michel is a Gothic abbey that sits on top of a 264-foot rock formation at the edge of the sea. It was constructed between 1017 and 1521 of granite hauled stone by stone from Brittany. It is a sight to behold.

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I’m really glad I was able to see it, but this was by far my worst day of the trip. I was having tummy trouble (I will spare you the details), and coupled with steady rain and hordes of tourists, I spent most of my time hunkered down in a small restaurant drinking hot tea with lemon while others in our group toured the abbey. Sad!

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And then I walked back to the shuttle bus through the rain with wet tourists, most of whom were school children. Someday maybe I can go back and do it right.

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Tonight, we arrived at what might have been my favorite of all the wonderful places we stayed on this trip: the ferme de la Raconniere (“The Farm”) in Crépon. I was still sick upon our arrival, but it didn’t stop me from falling in love with this place. The rooms were adorable, the architecture and landscaping were lovely – flowers everywhere! — and we could see cows across the road. Everywhere you looked was another delightful view. I took pictures of this place for three days.

Thankfully, I felt better the next morning. After trying not to eat much of anything for 24 hours, I carefully ate a small amount of bread and yogurt for breakfast, and I drank a bit of coffee. It agreed with me!

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This morning our group headed to the Bayeaux Tapestry Museum, home to a famous 1,000-year-old tapestry depicting the exploits of William the Bastard who became William the Conqueror.  It’s really an artistic and historic masterpiece, but I also found it a bit amusing in places and wondered to myself if any of the Monty Python dudes drew inspiration from it. That William was quite a guy.

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Afterwards we had some time to explore medieval Bayeaux, with its elaborate cathedral (above), a poppy-themed shop, topiary knights (below), and cute sidewalk cafes. I drank another coffee to make up for my lost coffee-drinking time yesterday.

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This afternoon we went to the World War II Peace Memorial in Caen. I will have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to the WWII part of this trip, but this memorial was top-notch.

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If you can tour this museum and not become an emotional wreck, there’s something wrong with you. The museum, inside and out, is incredibly well done and very moving. I ate a muffin for lunch in the museum’s cafeteria, and drank more coffee.

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We also had our first look at a D-Day landing beach this afternoon. Juno is a Canadian landing beach (above), and we didn’t spend too much time there.

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We also stopped at Arromanches, a small town between Juno and Gold beaches, where I had yet another coffee with Anita and bought a few gifts at a little art shop.

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Riding “home” in the motor coach, we saw glorious Norman countryside.

Tonight, we drank some of that sparkling wine and ate dinner at The Farm (which looked even prettier than the day before). So I took more pictures.

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We woke the next morning to a forecast of rain, which threatened to spoil our day. Anita and our driver, George, quickly rearranged our itinerary for the day, allowing us to tour the outdoor sites in the morning and the indoor sites in the afternoon to try to thwart Mother Nature.

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We headed first to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, another moving visit (above and below).

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Later, we went to Omaha Beach, the setting for the loss of so many American lives on D-Day (below).

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Next, we visited Pointe du Hoc, with its preserved bombing sites:

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And, finally, we toured Utah Beach (below). Through all of these visits, I gained much more of an appreciation for what really went on during D-Day than I ever had before.

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We ate lunch at the WWII-themed Roosevelt Restaurant on Utah Beach …

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… and then visited the Airborne Museum in St Mére Eglise:

 

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For me, this was one WWII museum too many; I had sort of lost interest by this time and really wanted to amble through the Norman countryside and take pictures of cows. (Instead, I just took blurry pictures out the motor coach window.)

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When we got back to The Farm (more pictures!), I was ready to take a walk. I had a little time, so I walked into the little village of Crépon, with its small shops, pretty church, weird cemetery, and bar.

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Wait! There’s a bar? Like, a real French dive bar? Why, yes, there is. I availed myself of a beer (beer is pretty much beer in any language) and settled at the end of a table, watching the men of the village congregate to drink their own end-of-the-day brews. Unfortunately, nobody spoke a lick of English, and I don’t speak any French, so I was unable to have much of a conversation with anyone. They sort of looked at me like I was from Mars.

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I drank my beer, paid, and walked back to The Farm, only to be lured into the hotel bar by my travel mates for another glass of sparkling wine. And then dinner. And then back to my room to pack for our LAST transfer, because this trip is winding down.

Next morning: Today we go to Paris!!! But on the way, we get to do one of the highlights of the entire trip: Stop at Giverny and tour Monet’s home and garden. Yippee! I’ve wanted to do this for YEARS.

I enjoyed my last breakfast at The Farm. (Goodbye, old friend! You were wonderful!) It rained all morning on the motor coach.

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When we arrived in Giverny, it was still raining, and cold. Heading for Claude Monet’s home with our raincoats and umbrellas, I was thinking, man, give me a break. I want to see this garden in the sunshine.

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And then, as had been our stupendous good luck on this trip, the sun came out and it warmed up. As a group, we walked around the perimeter of the garden toward the house, and it was so hard not to stop a billion times to take photos of the flowers. But Anita wanted us to tour the house first before the crowd was too large, and then take our time in the gardens, have lunch on our own, and meet at the motor coach by 3 o’clock. Got it!

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I walked through the house, taking time to notice the Japanese prints and the other artwork on the walls. This is not a Monet art museum, however – the artwork is not his own; it was just his collection of art. The home is not fancy, but I loved it. Each room is more lovely than the next, decorated in brilliant colors like yellow and blue.

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But the main attraction for most visitors to this place – and there are about 500,000 visitors each year – are the gardens. There are two parts in Monet’s garden: a flower garden called Clos Normand in front of the house and a Japanese-inspired water garden on the other side of the road, via an underground passage. Both are spectacular, huge, amazing, and heart-breakingly lovely. Even filled with tourists taking selfies. I saw flowers there I’ve never seen before.

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The Japanese garden is lush with weeping willows and water lilies, and the little arched bridges look just like they do in Monet’s famous paints. I just kept saying WOW. I loved everything about it.

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Claude Monet and his family settled in Giverny in 1883. Monet died in 1926. The property was badly neglected, and the gardens had to be restored mid last century. The house and gardens were opened to the public in 1980. If you ever get a chance to see this wonderful place, just GO.

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After our visit, which left me exhausted because it was so exhilarating, some of our group ate lunch and then visited yet another garden in the village of Giverny: the flower garden at Musee des Impressionismes, just down the road from Monet’s home. Each garden was planted by color, and if I hadn’t already seen so many world-class gardens in the past 10 days, I would have found this one incredible. But my heart was still back at Monet’s masterpiece.

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Up next: Paris!

Provincial French Countryside: Part un (Toulouse to Sarlat)

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I really don’t even know where to begin to write about the fabulous time I had last month in France. I was fortunate to host a group of Iowa State alumni and friends, along with some great folks from North Carolina State, on a two-week Odysseys Unlimited tour called Provincial French Countryside. We spent two days in Toulouse in southern France, three days in the Dordogne region, three days in the Loire Valley, three days in Normandy, and two days in Paris. I’ve always loved Odysseys itineraries – this is the fifth tour I’ve been lucky enough to host with this travel company – and this one did not disappoint. Here’s the first part of the trip:

TOULOUSE AREA

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Bonjour! We survived our trans-Atlantic flight to Paris and another flight to Toulouse. We arrived around noon and immediately checked into our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, located on the vibrant Capitole Square. The first day is always tough – you’re really tired from the travel but you don’t want to lie down or you’ll never get up. I like to keep moving, so I walked all over the central part of Toulouse, which is laid out kind of like spokes on a wheel, with Capitole Square being the center of the wheel.

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Eventually I got tired of walking and wanted something to eat, so I stopped at one of the many sidewalk cafes on the square and ordered a cheese plate and a beer. (The cheese plate was yummy and would have easily served three people. I am not complaining.) Tonight our group of 20 got together for introductions and an orientation by our group leader, Anita, and then we had a welcome dinner with wine. Nighty-night!

Next morning: Toulouse is a big city; it’s France’s fourth-largest metro area, with about 1.3 million people. Besides being darn pretty, its claim to fame is being the center of the European aerospace industry with the headquarters of Airbus located there. It also has a tantalizing indoor food market with the most beautiful bread and cheese!

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We honestly didn’t spend that much time in Toulouse except for dinners and sleeping, because this morning we ventured southeast to Carcassonne, a French hilltop town with the longest city walls in Europe.

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Anita told us all about the history, with battlements and ramparts dating back to first-century Romans. Mostly built in the 13th century, the whole place is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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After our tour, we had some time to explore on our own and eat lunch, but I much prefer to walk and take pictures (above), so I ate a Nutella crepe from a street vendor and called it lunch. Delicious!

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This afternoon and evening I walked with a group to explore the lovely cathedral Basilique St-Sernin (above), followed by a walk through the city and dinner on Capitole Square.

DORDOGNE VALLEY

By our third full day in France, everyone finally seemed over the initial time difference and we were eager to venture to our next overnight location: Sarlat-la-Canéda, in the beautiful Dordogne Valley. En route, we spent several hours in the stunning town of Albi, home of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Here we visited his museum, and I gained a much greater appreciation of his life and art thanks to Anita. The museum is housed in a medieval fortress and has a tremendous formal garden that can be viewed from above.

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The whole town is breathtaking, especially when viewed from the Pont Vieux Bridge that crosses the River Tarn, which runs through the city. After our tour, a group of us gathered at a local eatery that specialized in pizza, despite Anita’s instruction to eat a local French delicacy, the name of which I’ve already forgotten. The pizza tasted wonderful. This area is famous for pastel – a yellow flower that produces a blue dye. Apparently it was very popular until indigo came along. You can still find pastel items in Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, and they are really gorgeous.

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We arrived in Sarlat this afternoon and took a walking tour of the town center (above). I kept expecting Belle from Beauty and the Beast to come strolling out with her book. This was just the most picturesque village I’d ever seen up to this point, with its medieval-era golden limestone buildings. This town has more registered historic sites than anywhere else in Europe. The countryside surrounding the town is also gorgeous, and we traveled through it to reach our hotel, the Hotel Meysset, which overlooks a valley that reminded me of Tuscany (below).

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I loved this place: The food was extraordinary (we ate three breakfasts and three evening meals here), the wine was exceptional, the rooms were all unique and wonderful. The terrace just beckoned you to sit and drink wine and enjoy the view. So we did. Every night.

With the Meysset as our home base, we explored the Dordogne region. The first full day there was pretty amazing, with a visit to the caves at Lascaux II. I wasn’t familiar with this story, but apparently in the 1940s these caves were discovered by some teenage boys, and they contained extraordinary animal paintings by Stone Age hunters created some 17,000 years ago. Lascaux II is actually a carefully rendered replica of the original cave, which was in danger of being destroyed by the huge number of visitors who flocked to see it. I have a pretty bad case of claustrophobia, but I managed to make it through the cave tour unscathed, and I thought it was incredible. (No photos allowed, so here’s a link to see the paintings.)

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En route to lunch, we stopped and walked through a tiny village that I think was called Leon something; I can’t find it on the map, but it was just adorable. It looked like a picture postcard. I could have stayed there for a week. See below:

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After one of the best lunches on the whole tour (above), at Le Cro Magnon restaurant in Les Eyzies (yes, there’s a lot of cave man stuff in this area), we continued on to a boat cruise along the Dordogne. The cruise itself wasn’t anything special, but the area is really beautiful and historic, with cliff-top chateaux and medieval towns. See pictures below:

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And then we went back to our wonderful hotel, with its stunning views of the valley, and we decided to do a group photo.

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We woke to rain the next morning, which was a darn shame because we spent the whole morning outside at the coolest marketplace throughout the village of Sarlat. Anita gave us an orientation tour, pointing out the best (breads, cheeses, mushrooms, pastries) and worst (sausage, foi gras) of the food vendors selling their wares. I loved this place!

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I paid to take an elevator to the top of a tower in the center of town to view the rooftops and learn more about the city (unfortunately, I was with a group of local people so the entire explanation about what we were seeing was in French; I didn’t understand one word, but it was still awesome).

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Later I fell on wet cobblestones and had to be hoisted up off the pavement by my armpits by a kind Frenchman. No serious injury except to my ego and my shattered camera filter (the lens was fine); I had a bruised knee and hip the next day, but it could have been a lot worse.

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This afternoon we visited the medieval town of Rocamadour, perched on top of a cliff set in a canyon. The town is religiously significant, with a 12th-century Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre Dame. I found the setting of the town pretty impressive.

The next day we left our beloved Hotel Meysset (Too soon! Too soon!) and headed toward the Loire Valley and the town of Saumur, where we would spend the next three nights.

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En route, we stopped for lunch in the small town of Le Dorat (above) at a cute and cozy little restaurant, then took a quick walk around the town — which had a mighty impressive cathedral and some lovely historic architecture — before getting back in the motorcoach for the rest of our journey.

Stay tuned for part deux!

An eclipse weekend adventure

When I bought tickets many months ago to see Lady Gaga in concert in Omaha, I didn’t notice that the concert was just two days before the North American total solar eclipse – the Aug. 21 mega-event that would delight (and frustrate) millions of people and lead to epic traffic jams.

But there you go: Concert on the 19th, eclipse on the 21st. An adventure in the making.

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We got to Omaha on Saturday afternoon and decided to visit the National Park Service’s Lewis & Clark Visitor Center and Trail Headquarters on Riverfront Drive. This place is worth visiting for several reasons: There’s a cool Lewis & Clark trail map on the wall, you can pick up a gazillion National Park brochures, and there’s a cool bridge nearby – the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge – that spans the Missouri River.

And then it was time for dinner and drinks in the super-crowded but always fun Old Market area. Then on to the concert at the CenturyLink Center, which is an easy walk from the Old Market. I have to say that I’m not a huge fan of big stadium-style concerts. I’d much prefer to go to a little arthouse concert or hear live blues in a dive bar. That’s more my style. But I think Lady Gaga is a formidable talent, and I thought it would be worth braving the crowds to see her.

I wasn’t disappointed. Even though the concert started an irritating hour-and-a-half late (seriously, if you’re not going to start the concert until 9 p.m., say it starts at 8:30 and then we all can sit on a sweet little patio somewhere sipping wine instead of being smooshed into uncomfortable seats with 15,000 of our closest friends at the CenturyLink Center.)

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Once she took the stage, Lady Gaga played every song you’d expect her to play, blazing through her playlist and wowing the crowd with eye-popping costumes and dazzling special effects. Our seats were decent but a long way from the stage, so we were pretty excited when bridges were lowered from the ceiling and mini-stages came up out of the floor, allowing Gaga to leave the main stage and move above the crowd gathered on the floor, dancing her way to a secondary stage set up right in front of us, where she danced and played several numbers on an elaborate translucent grand piano. That was cool.

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My cell phone photos are not good, sorry. Here’s a way better one from the Omaha World-Herald website:

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Anyway, the concert was pretty awesome and didn’t end until 11:30 p.m., so I guess we got our money’s worth.

We spent Saturday night in Omaha and got up the next morning and went to the Henry Doorly Zoo. I’ve been to this zoo many, many times, but it never disappoints. In fact, the zoo is getting better all the time. I thought it was at its peak when it finished building the Lied Jungle (below), Desert Dome/Kingdoms of the Night, and Scott Aquarium – these are three world-class indoor exhibits.

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Then they added the Hubbard Orangutan Forest, Gorilla Valley (above), and Expedition Madagascar, three more terrific animal habitats.

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Now there’s Scott African Grasslands, a $73 million, 28-acre section that opened last summer. It’s really spectacular. Here are a few photos of the indoor and open-air African Grasslands exhibits:

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Coming soon is the $20 million Asian Highlands project – eight acres said to “transport zoo guests on an immersive journey through Asia, ranging from the grasslands of Northern India, through the Himalayan Mountains, to the boreal forests of northeastern China.” Can’t wait to go back! I just think Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the best zoos in the country, and we’re so lucky to have it close to Iowa. Here are a few more zoo photos:

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After our day-long visit to the zoo, we drove to Kansas City to spend the night. We viewed the eclipse the next day on a cattle farm in Lathrop, a town said to be one of the better viewing locations in the path of totality. It might have been, had it not rained much of the morning and been overcast during the eclipse.

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We still had a great experience, as the sun peeked out every few minutes during the partial eclipse. We did get to view the total eclipse, albeit shrouded in cloud cover. The 360-degree “sunrise” was the best part.

And then we sat on I-35 in a massive traffic jam with people from Iowa and Minnesota heading home – even longer than we sat waiting for Lady Gaga to go onstage!

Sisters’ weekend in Nebraska City

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Nebraska City is so close to the Iowa border that you’d forget you’re not in Iowa if it weren’t for the name: NEBRASKA City. Kind of a constant reminder, isn’t it?

For a city with a population of just 7,289, Nebraska City has a lot to offer. My sisters and I decided to spend a late summer weekend there primarily because of the location (I’m in Ames; they’re in the Kansas City area) and because of the Lied Lodge, which I’d heard was cool.

We learned that there’s a lot of history in Nebraska City, plus museums, shops, antiques, orchards, and parks.

What we did:

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We stayed at the LIED LODGE & CONFERENCE CENTER on the western edge of town. This was our home base for the weekend, and it’s close to nearly everything we wanted to do.

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Lied Lodge was originally built by the Arbor Day Foundation as a place to meet to discuss trees and the environment. The lobby would attest to this, with soaring natural timber beams, massive fireplace, and outdoorsy décor. Today’s use for the lodge extends to family reunions, weddings, vacations, and conferences. It’s a pretty terrific place, with 140 rooms, 14,000 square feet of event space, and 260 wooded acres to explore. There’s also a spacious restaurant (the Timber Dining Room) with awesome views, plus a spa and an Olympic-sized pool with Jacuzzi. When we were there, they were also doing wine tasting each night.

Nearby (within fairly easy walking distance, as the crow flies) is the ARBOR LODGE MANSION. This is a memorably beautiful home (I was here just one time before, for a friend’s wedding, about 25 years ago, and I remember vividly how pretty it was) that’s been turned into a museum filled with furniture and artifacts from J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. Morton was also the Morton Salt guy, we found out. He established Arbor Day in 1872; the 52-room home is surrounded by hundreds of trees and shrubs in the 72-acre ARBOR LODGE STATE HISTORICAL PARK.

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We first visited the mansion Friday night after it was closed; we just walked around outside and marveled at it, despite its desperate need for a good scraping and painting. (Not to worry; signs assured us that this project would be commencing this fall.) The next morning, we took a self-guided tour of the home ($8 admission), with its never-ending rooms filled with period furnishings, plus a carriage house and tack room.

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Also in the area is the ARBOR DAY FARM TREE ADVENTURE, which looks like a great place for kids. It has forested trails, a treehouse, and a discovery ride. We did not go in.

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We did, however, go inside the adjacent APPLE HOUSE MARKET, hoping to find peach pie in the Pie Garden Café and bags of peaches to take home with us. Unfortunately, we found neither (the café was only serving apple pie, and the place smelled of hotdogs), but I bought a jar of pumpkin butter.

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Instead, we headed DOWNTOWN. Central Ave. is lined with shops – quilt shops, a dress shop, antiques stores, and more – plus murals painted on the sides of buildings and a series of artist-designed trees (this is Tree City, after all). We killed a couple of hours poking around the shops and taking pictures.

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Our favorite place by far was The Keeping Room – truly a destination if you enjoy shopping for home décor, holiday decorations, and Polish pottery. There’s a cafe there as well, and we vowed to return in the afternoon for a bite to eat.

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Meanwhile, we toured the MAYHEW CABIN WITH JOHN BROWN’S CAVE, an Underground Railroad site with an original 1850s cabin and a 1930s reconstructed cave and tunnel. This is a fascinating place and costs just $3 for a self-guided tour (they knock off a dollar from the admission price if you’re over 60).

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The cabin is tiny (above), and the cave and tunnel are a bit claustrophobia-inducing (below), but they’re a really fascinating and sobering look into what it must have been like for slaves who traveled north seeking freedom. We also walked through a nearby historic village, which includes one of the first African American churches west of the Missouri River.

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What else did we do? Oh, we went north to KIMMEL ORCHARD, where we finally found some peaches to buy. And we drove back into Iowa a few miles to the FINDERS KEEPERS ANTIQUE MALL at the intersection of I-29 and Hwy. 2.

After all of this shopping and driving, I was ready for a WALK. Late in the afternoon, I found a trail that would take me from Lied Lodge through the woods over to Arbor Day Farm and on to the Arbor Lodge Mansion and Arbor Lodge State Park. It was a nice hour-long walk and fun to visit all of these places on foot.

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Later, after dinner, one of my sisters and I sat in the Jacuzzi with many people we did not know. (Obviously this photo was taken earlier in the day, before all the swimmer descended.)

Where we ate:

On Friday night, we went downtown in search of food. We found Prairie City Chop House and shared an enormous veggie pizza. It was so big that the three of us could only eat half. It took two take-out containers to hold the rest.

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We ate breakfast at the restaurant at our lodge, in the Timber Dining Room. They offered a breakfast buffet for $12 but we opted for the menu. I ate a short stack of pancakes topped with fresh blueberries – again, the portion was so large I only finished half. The dining room has an outdoor terrace with great views (above).

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We finally got our peach pie – sort of – at The Keeping Room Café. This downtown shop/café is the best! They have a nice menu, including a number of regular dessert selections, but we were so lucky that Saturday’s dessert special was peach cobbler. We each ordered cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream and called it lunch. So yummy! The fact that they served the food (and my coffee) in Polish pottery made it even more delicious. This may have been the highlight of the whole weekend. (I wanted to buy this bowl and take it home with me.)

Not that we needed more food, but we ate a late dinner on the patio at The Depot Kitchen & Taproom, near the railroad tracks south of downtown. They didn’t have much in the way of vegetarian options, but I didn’t care at this point. They had a nice selection of local brews, and I ordered a (huge) appetizer, of which I (again) ate just half. (What is it with Big Food in Nebraska City?)

Before we headed our separate ways on Sunday morning, we stopped for breakfast at Jonny’s Café on Central Ave. downtown. I ordered eggs, hash browns and toast for just 4 bucks; it was really good, and the service was fast and friendly. Jonny’s also had a nice-looking breakfast buffet.

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Finally, I can’t post a blog about sisters’ weekend without showing you my sisters. That’s Donna Butler on the left, Judy Forth in the center (both of Independence, Mo.) and me on the right at The Keeping Room in downtown Nebraska City.