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A winter escape to Florida

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When we planned this trip to Florida (Feb. 2-7) several months ago, we had no way of knowing how truly awful the weather was going to be here in Iowa while we were away. In south Florida, while we were basking in sunny, 75- to 80-degree days, all hell was breaking loose back home: below-zero temps, heavy snow, and a freakish 50-car pile-up on I-35 right outside of Ames.

We just sighed and put on more sunscreen. I mean, what can you do?

Our trip began on Friday. We flew into the Fort Lauderdale airport and drove to Miami. We had booked an Airbnb in Miami Beach for a little mid-winter getaway. Neither Dave nor I had ever spent much time in Miami, and we thought it would be fun to explore the area, go to a couple of national parks, and enjoy the warm weather.

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Our one-bedroom apartment was on the third floor of an older building (above, just behind the palm tree) on Collins Ave., a main road that runs the length of Miami Beach’s north and south beaches. I liked our location; we were surrounded by small restaurants, food markets, and drugstores, and the beach was just a block and a half away. Parking was free – if you were willing to park in the residential area a few blocks from the main streets. We found a Greek open-air patio, a Cuban restaurant, upscale Mexican food, and a great pizza dive all within about six blocks. We shopped for breakfast food and snacks in a small grocery store. Everything was really convenient.

Now, if I had to do it over again, I probably would have, instead, booked a small boutique hotel in South Beach, just a few miles down the road. (How much would that cost, I wonder? I didn’t even consider it.) South Beach (below) was a lot of fun.

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We walked past block after block of pastel Art Deco architecture, strolled on the public beach, and ate lunch outside at one of the many, many sidewalk cafes along the pedestrian Española Way, below. (We shared the most amazing porcini mushroom pappardelle pasta dish, with crusty Italian bread, a fresh mozzarella salad, and wine.)

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That afternoon, we ventured into Miami and took an art walk in the Wynwood Art District, below. As you can see, the area mostly features graffiti-based murals. I would have enjoyed this more if it hadn’t been raining.

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We also drove through Little Havana, which was a really intriguing area, below. We parked our car and walked along one of the main streets, stopping for coffee in a cute Cuban coffee shop and enjoying the lively music that seemingly came from every shop, bar, and restaurant. We would have stayed longer, but it began to rain heavily, and the wind was fierce, so our umbrellas were no help at all. (But at least it was a warm rain!)

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On our second full day in south Florida, we drove to the visitor center at Biscayne National Park and boarded a boat that took us on a three-hour tour of the park.

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Biscayne is about 95% water, so a boat is definitely necessary if you want to see much of anything. We booked our $39-per-person tour on the Pelican Island Skipper through the Biscayne National Park Institute. There are mangroves and reefs and a series of small keys in the bay; we stopped at one of them – Boca Chita Key – and took a short hike, climbed to the top of a lighthouse, and enjoyed the beach and the yachts in the small harbor.

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The institute offers other experiences as well, including snorkeling and paddling. (A bonus surprise: A hazy view of the distant Miami skyline, below.)

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As we were fairly far south already, we decided to visit Key Largo, because that seemed like a cool thing to do. We did absolutely no research (except looking at the map), and we were disappointed when we got there. We didn’t find much to like, but we did find a small café with an outdoor patio, where we were entertained by tiny lizards. And, of course, I ordered key lime pie.

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This put us a little behind schedule, because we were hoping to drive through the southern part of Everglades National Park. I’ve wanted to see the Everglades forever; I wasn’t sure how much damage the park sustained during the recent hurricane season, so I was happy to see that most of it appeared to be pretty much unscathed.

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We took the park road near the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center. Every few miles along this 38-mile drive, you can turn down a small road and end up at a trailhead that takes you on a short loop hike. It was already late afternoon, so we only made it about halfway down the main road. Some of the hikes are as short as .2 miles. The longest one we took was .8 miles. All are easily traversed; most are boardwalked.

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All of the walks were lovely, although the Anhinga Trail (all pics above) was by far our favorite. There we saw birds, alligators, and fish in the freshwater marsh, and, eventually, the soft colors of sunset. We would have stayed longer, but it got too dark.

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The next day we hit the northern part of the Everglades, driving along Hwy. 41 to the Shark Valley Visitor Center and walking the Tram Trail and Otter Valley Hammock Trail.

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Alligators greeted us with toothy smiles all along the Tram Trail, and we saw egrets, herons, ibis, and other awesome birds. We also heard the constant splash of the walking catfish, but we never actually saw one.

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I could have stayed all day. On our way out of south Florida we drove through Big Cypress, a designated national preserve, where we saw more gators, below.

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Later, we took a quick hike on a palmy, ferny trail through a Panther Preserve, below. It occurred to me, while we were hiking, that putting human trails inside a panther preserve might not be the best idea, but I assume it’s safe? We obviously didn’t get eaten.

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We didn’t have a lot of time to explore during this leg of the trip, because our destination was Orlando, and it’s a long drive to get there, no matter how you do it. I was the navigator, and I was trying to take the most direct route straight north, as opposed to going to the east or west side of Florida, where the interstates are very much out of the way. The road we were going north on most of the day (Hwy 29) was SLOW and went through a lot of little towns and through orange groves and I thought we’d never, ever get there.

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When we finally arrived at our destination – one of the many Hampton Inns in Orlando – we made a quick change and then hurried to Disney Springs for dinner and some shopping. Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) has changed a lot over the years, and it was barely recognizable to us with its new parking garages, high-end shopping, and new bars and restaurants.

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We snagged a table at House of Blues with no waiting, and then we dropped over a hundred dollars on a tiny bag of gifts at the huge Disney store.

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We had a little free time the next day, so we decided to visit Epcot, a Disney park we’ve grown to love. We got there so early that we didn’t even have to take the tram from the parking lot; we purchased tickets and were in the park before it actually opened. Once we were in, we headed directly to the Soarin’ ride. We knew it had recently been updated from a “flight” above the California coastline to a “flight” around the world. I always enjoyed it before, but now it’s a gazillion times more amazing. You dip and glide above Sydney Harbour, Iguazu Falls, and the Great Wall of China, soar above polar bears and whales, and swoop over the Taj Mahal and Eiffel Tower. We loved it.

After riding Soarin’, it was still a good hour before World Showcase would open, and we didn’t have anything else we wanted to do in Future World, so we decided to ride Test Track – in hindsight, a stupid mistake. There wasn’t a wait time listed at the standby entrance, and the line didn’t look very long, so we hopped in. We finally boarded the stupid car an HOUR after waiting in a ridiculously slow-moving queue. Honestly, I wouldn’t have minded standing in line for an hour, but I didn’t even want to ride this damn thing. I kept looking for an exit, but once we were in, we were stuck. I became very grumpy. And very glad to finally get out. (Oh, by the way, the last 20 seconds of the ride is pretty fun. The rest is meh.)

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After that, I didn’t have the patience to stand in another line. The only other thing I really wanted to ride was “Frozen Ever After” in the Norway section, and the line was consistently running 45 minutes or more. I decided I could live without it.

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Instead, we ate pizza and drank wine in Italy, shopped in Germany and Mexico, ate ice cream in France, and drank a beer at the Rose & Crown in the UK. We watched little kids meet their favorite Disney characters. It was a gloriously warm, sunny day, and we spent much of the afternoon just strolling from country to country.

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And now we’re back in Iowa, where it snows every freaking day. I am ready for spring!

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New York, January 2018

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Why in the world would anyone choose to travel to New York City in January? The holidays are over, the ball has dropped, and winter weather has set in. It’s not really the best time to visit my favorite city.

January and February are great months to snag (relatively) inexpensive hotel rooms, discounted theatre tickets, and encounter (relatively) small crowds. But my primary motivation to visit New York Jan. 12-15 was this: Miss Saigon was closing.

Miss Saigon is one of my all-time favorite Broadway shows. I saw the original cast back in June 1991, and saw it again (from the front row) in December 1992. Lea Salonga, the original Kim, left the show but eventually returned, and I saw her perform the role again in June 1999. The show finally closed, but it came back last year as a revival, with a new cast from the London revival. When I saw this cast perform at the Tony Awards last year, I knew I had to see it again.

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren became obsessed with this show. She saw it once on tour and has listened to the cast recording for years. She lives in Denver now, so the logistics of the two of us traveling together have become slightly more complicated, but I told her last fall we could go see it. But then my fall filled up with an unexpected trip to France and the usual magazine deadlines, and I pushed back on my promise: Maybe we’d go in the spring.

I hadn’t taken into account that the show would be closing on Jan. 14. So, right after Thanksgiving I did some research and found that tickets were still available, not only for Miss Saigon but also for Dear Evan Hansen, the other (mostly sold-out) show I had really wanted to see last fall (before the lead actor, Ben Platt, left the cast). I quickly snapped up tickets to both shows, scored a half-price hotel room on Cyber Monday, and booked non-stop flights from Denver and Des Moines.

The trip was last weekend, and I have to say that despite being in January, it was one of the best times I’ve ever had in New York. Here are some highlights:

THE SHOWS

Seeing Broadway shows is the number-one reason I go to New York. This was my 21st visit to the city, and I’ve seen shows all but a couple of times – 54 total performances. I am rarely disappointed.

When we arrived on Friday afternoon, we stood in the Times Square TKTS line and bought tickets for Anastasia, a relatively new musical. I’m sort of surprised it was even on the TKTS board, because there were not two remaining seats next to each other. We bought two single tickets, and they were both good seats, although they were only 20% off, so still expensive. Lauren had been a fan of the movie musical Anastasia, but I wasn’t really familiar with it. We saw a cast performance on TV during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it looked like something we’d both enjoy. It was a good show, with lavish sets and costumes, big dance numbers, and a large cast. We saw the understudy for the main Anastasia/Anya character (and several other understudies), but they were all really top-notch.

IMG_0630The two musicals for which we bought tickets in advance – Miss Saigon and Dear Evan Hansen – are definitely Top 10 shows for me. They’re very different, but both are tragic and powerful, with strong characters, casts, and storylines. Evan Hansen weaves in a fair amount of humor in an otherwise dark show about a teenage boy with crippling social anxiety. Miss Saigon is just a 2-hour-and-40-minute gut punch – dare I say that the gritty revival was even better than the original? – after which you’re so exhausted you can barely move. Both pack an emotional wallop and are worth every penny of their over-inflated ticket prices. We saw no understudies in either show, and the new Evan Hansen, Noah Galvin, was truly wonderful – his performance was aching, fragile, and heartbreaking, and he has a terrific voice. For both shows, we had seats that were at the edge of the main floor, but very close to the stage, so we saw every expression on every face. Amazing, amazing experiences, both. (We saw the next-to-last Broadway performance of Miss Saigon, it’s scheduled to begin touring this fall.)

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THE PEOPLE

I had a blast with my daughter. And we met up in Brooklyn with my nephew, Steve, and had lunch with him in Little Italy (above). More on that later.

FOOD AND DRINK

I’m disinclined to pay more for food than I absolutely have to, and I don’t find fancy restaurants worth what they cost, especially in New York City. Lauren and I found a counter-service deli near our hotel and went there often, for breakfast (bagels, egg sandwiches, pancakes), after-theatre desserts (cheesecake, naturally), and grab-and-go stuff to take back to our room (beer, black-and-white cookies).

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We found great coffee shops in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood (True North on Lorimore and Black Star Bakery on Metropolitan), where the three of us got out of the cold and enjoyed some good espresso drinks. I had an almond croissant that was Paris-worthy. Steve grabbed a sandwich at Bagelsmith, one of the best bagel shops in Brooklyn. We also enjoyed glasses of wine at the Pinkerton Wine Bar. (All of these places were within a few blocks of each other. Take the L Train from Manhattan and get off at Lorimore. Start at True North; it’s right across the street from the subway station.)

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Ray’s Pizza is ubiquitous in New York; it seems like it’s on every block in Midtown Manhattan. Lauren and I grabbed slices of pizza there twice for dinner after the theatre; it’s decidedly unfancy, with paper plates and red plastic trays – and you might have to clean off a table if you want to eat there. But you can’t beat the price, and the white and margherita slices are soooo good. (Slices are huge, so one is enough.)

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I’ve always loved eating lunch in Little Italy, and it’s so affordable. We met Steve there on Sunday. This was the only time we ate at a real restaurant with an actual waiter, and still, my cheese manicotti was just $12.95. The bread is free, and wine by the glass is extremely reasonable. Little Italy is more fun in the warmer months, when you can sit outside, but our restaurant, Lunella, was warm and cozy. (Find restaurants up and down Mulberry Street; they’re all very similar. To get there, take the green train to Spring Street.)

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Finally: Zabar’s. I try to get to Zabar’s — a grocery store/deli that has a small, attached coffee shop with a limited menu, located at 80th and Broadway – every time I go to the city. The sad thing about going there is I can’t buy much. Sometimes I get food for a picnic in Central Park, but usually I just drool over the cheese counter, the bakery, and all the rest because I’m staying in a hotel and have no way to preserve or prepare the food. On this trip, after I put Lauren in a taxi for the airport early Monday morning and after I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I walked to Zabar’s for a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese, coffee, and a cinnamon-raisin rugelach for a late lunch. Even crammed into the too-small counter-seating, it was still a highlight of the trip.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS AND LOGISTICS

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Vintage clothing in Brooklyn: We stumbled on a vintage clothing store called 10 ft Single by Stella Dallas, and it was delightful – just packed to the rafters with true vintage clothing, much of it from the 1950s — beautiful wool and silk and fur and flannel, and lots of other stuff, too. I tried on a plaid coat; Lauren tried on hats. I could have spent hours there. It was pricey for used clothing, and we bought nothing, but it was just so fun.

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The 9/11 Museum and Memorial: I’d visited this museum two years ago with Dave, and had seen the memorial a couple of times, but Lauren hadn’t seen either one, so we went first thing Sunday morning. It was just as powerful, tragic, and emotion-laden as the first time. I highly recommend it. Note that much of the museum is off limits to photography.  (Museum admission is $24; the outdoor memorial is free.)

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Met is right up there with the Louvre in Paris, as far as I’m concerned. I loved it the first time I saw it in 1988, and I’ve loved it each time I visited. This time, hoards of people were there to see the Michelangelo exhibit. The best thing about this was that, since I was there when the doors opened, I got to view the incredible European painting galleries (from 1250 to early 20th century) basically by myself (see above); nearly everyone else had rushed to see Michelangelo. It was heaven!

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Eventually I walked away from this area – my favorite – and visited the Michelangelo exhibit myself, and it was incredible, even with the crowd. The other special exhibit was contemporary artist David Hockney (see his exhibit catalog below), and while his art at first seemed like kindergarten finger painting compared to Michelangelo’s delicate sketches, it grew on me. I love his use of bold color and his photo collages.

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Shopping: It’s always fun to shop in New York. Lauren wanted to go to the MoMa Design Store on 6th Ave. – always delightful – and the NYX makeup store at Union Square. When she said she wanted to go to this store, I thought, oh, no problem, we’ll find this one small store in all of New York. But it was actually easy; we got off the L train coming back from Brooklyn and had no trouble finding it. And here’s a bonus: I actually enjoyed it. It was a fun, affordable shop. We poked around in a few Times Square souvenir shops and a thrift shop in Brooklyn (above); I bought a few things at Forever 21 (I know, I know: We have this chain in Iowa, but the NYC store is awesome, and much more fashion-forward) and at a Loft near Lincoln Center that was having a blow-out sale.

The New York Subway: I know the New York Subway system is in terrible shape and needs a multi-billion-dollar upgrade, but it’s still a great way to get around New York. It’s fast, and it’s easy to figure out. From our location (The Park Central Hotel on 7th Ave. at 56th Street) we were just a block from a station that would take us all over the city, with easy transfers at Union Square, 42nd Street, etc.) We found our way to Brooklyn on the L Train, to lower Manhattan, Little Italy, and the NYX store with absolutely no problem.

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.

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!