Monday, February 09, 2015

February 9, 2015 -- Phoenix, Arizona -- trip wrapup

After writing this blog about my 2014 attempt, I hiked the Camino successfully in 2015 and wrote an ebook about it. The book is for sale on all Amazon sites worldwide and includes hundreds of color photographs. The title is: A Senior Citizen Walks the Camino de Santiago. 
 Click here for more information on the book.

I intended to do this entry on Friday or Saturday, but I underestimated how much time my post-trip obligations would take up including working as a "volunteer" Saturday at a bike race that our bike racing team, Team RPM, put on.

I managed to get through a month of flying on crowded airplanes, riding in crowded buses and trains, and sleeping in shared dormitory rooms without a sniffle. Today I have the first symptoms of a cold, which I obviously caught in sunny Phoenix.  :(

The flight back from Brussels to Newark (outside New York City) arrived very late. We were delayed on the ground in Brussels by freezing rain that caused ice to form on the plane's wings, and our plane had to wait its turn for deicing. I should have had several hours to recover in Newark Airport, but as it turned out, once I got my baggage, got through customs, and rechecked my bag, I had to hurry to catch my connecting flight. The system in Europe is simpler. If you have a connecting flight, you don't have to take your checked baggage through customs unless there is a question about it. You luggage is checked through to your final destination.

On the flight from Phoenix to Newark, shortened to five hours by favorable winds, my seat companions were a French Canadian couple who spoke little English, so I got to use my inadequate French one last time.

Oh, the bike race Saturday. Yes, I raced in the 70 plus age group. There were only five of us, and I came in dead last. I wasn't disappointed, because it was my first real bike ride in a month, and I managed to hang on about halfway through the race before the other four left me behind. It was a circuit race, and I was worried about taking one fast 90-degree corner on a downhill in a group after not having taken a fast turn on the bike in such a long time, but it turned out that I handled it fine.

This is the last entry until sometime in July, when I head to Europe again to make one more attempt to do the entire Camino de Santiage de Compostela, 500 miles or 800 kilometers, on foot. I will leave open the option of doing it on a bicycle if the tendons in my left leg haven't completely healed from last summer's attempt (it's been seven months, and the tendons are still not completely healed).

Oh, page views during the past week. Views were understandably down, as the trip ended last Thursday, but here are the views by country:

Belgium 60 (due to the fact that Melonie of the Brussels Youth Hostel has lots of local admirers, I assume)
USA 26
Germany 5
France 5
Netherlands 5
Spain 3
Ireland 2
Argentina, Italy and Latvia 1 each.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

February 4, 2015 -- Brussels Belgium

This will be my last blog entry from Europe until I return in July for my third attempt at completing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I will try to do a final wrap-up entry of the trip from Phoenix on either Friday or Saturday. When I arrive home tomorrow night, I will be too intoxicated from lack of sleep to write.

I walked this morning to the Plaramenterium, which is the multimedia center that attempts to explain the workings of the European Parliament to those of us who might not be very politically astute. I can't claim to now understand with workings of the European Union's government, but I do at least understand a little bit better the workings of the Parliament branch. I am still completely ignorant of of how the European Commission fits into the scheme of things, for example. Nor do I completely understand why the Parliament performs some of its functions in Brussels and others in Strasbourg, France. Well, I do know why; the French government at the time had the biggest clout in the organization (the UK had not yet joined, and Germany was still keeping a low profile due to guilt feelings about the Second World War), and the French wanted to be at the center of thing.

I was going to take a bus to the Parlamenterium until I checked the price of a bus ticket. It's WAY more expensive than in Paris. Then I remembered that I was here to walk and that the distance was only a few kilometers each way, so I walked both directions.

Entrance to the Parlamentarium
I didn't try to take any photos inside the Parlamenterium. It wouldn't have worked, because the place is a multimedia visitors' center with touch screens, audio, and a 360-degree surround movie theater that puts the viewer in the center of a parliament session.. However, the photo above shows the entrance.

Security was like that of an airport, in theory at least. I had to leave my two small pocket knives outside for safe keeping, and after emptying all of my pockets, I failed the metal detector on three attempts. Then I failed the wand screening. Finally they just let me go through.

I was surprised that the security staff and welcoming committee spoke very basic English. After not understanding much when a few of them insisted on using their English with me, I stubbornly stuck to French, which I at least speak well enough to be able to communicate.

On the way back, I passed through the Parc de Bruxelles, which seems to be the place to go for a run. There were hundreds of runners, almost all of them running around the park's perimeter in a clockwise direction. There was an occasional runner on on of the park's other paths, and naturally there were a few who didn't get the message and were running counterclockwise in the face of the oncoming thundering herd.

Runners in the Brussels Park
Well, that's it for this trip. As I wrote above, I'll do one final entry on Friday or Saturday when I'm in Phoenix. I will have a lot of things to do when I get home, as there is no food (or beer) in the house, and the yard is probably overgrown with weeds. Oh, yes, and then there is that darn bicycle race on Saturday, which I am no only committed to racing but to working, as it is our bike-racing team that is putting it on.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

February 3, 2015 -- Brussels, Belgium

I took the noon train from Paris to Belgium and walked from the South Train Station to the youth hostel. As I walked into the hostel, a voice from behind the reception desk called out in English, "Mister Quinn! I have been expecting you!" It was the same young woman who checked me in weeks ago when I arrived from the airport after flying from Phoenix, and she was in fact expecting me. She remembered me from my last visit, and she said she saw my name on the computer in the list of reservations. I don't know if it is a good or bad thing that people all over Europe seem to remember me. It might be that I have made a very bad impression.

At any rate, here she is at the reception desk. Her name is Melonie, and she is fluent in at least three languages, possibly more, so she will be happy to give you a warm reception in your language if you come to stay at the hostel.

Melonie at the reception desk at Bruegel Hostel
The Bruegel youth hostel is right next to the Chapel la Chapelle in French or Kapellekerk in Dutch on Holy Ghost Street. Here's a picture of the Chapel. To me it looks big enough to be called a cathedral or at least a church, but it is a chapel. Well, that's not quite true. It's full name translates as the Church of Our Lady of the Chapel, and it is called the Chapel for short. It was once a mere chapel, but it began its transformation into a church in the year 1210 when it was decided to enlarge it.

The Chapel near Central Brussels
Right across from the Chapel is a skate park. It is not very crowded now, because it is winter and school is in session, but I have seen it crowded with skaters, skate boarders, and BMX bikers in summer. There is a heavy plexiglass wall at the back, which is a good thing, because the skate park is built out over the railroad tracks.

The skate park at the Chapel
I am staying at the Bruegel Youth Hostel, which is the Flemish youth hostel in Brussels. There are also several Walloon or French youth hostels. Belgium is a country deeply divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French-speaking Walloons, so there are two of everything including two youth hostel associations. Brussels is a French-speaking city located in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

The Bruegel Youth Hostel
If you come to Brussels, there is one place you should avoid, and that's the Pommes Frites or French Fry (or chips if you're British) stand on the Place de la Chapelle. It serves the most delicious French fries (which actually come from Belgium and not from France) that I have ever tasted. I've already succumbed today, despite the fact that I'm trying to keep my weight down for Saturday's bicycle race back in Phoenix. A large (who would get a small?) portion is about three times the size as a large order of fries at McDonald's and about six times as tasty. The only way to eat them is with spicy Belgian mayonnaise.
The Pommes Frites stand is a good place to avoid
Finally, below is a picture of a disappearing French cultural item. In fact, I never see them in France anymore, although they used to be all over the place. It's a (very) public pissoir. Yes, the name means just what you think it means. A man with an urgent need can walk inside, turn his back to the public, and....well, you get the idea. What do the ladies do? I have no idea. Perhaps gender equality and the lack of facilities for ladies to publicly relieve themselves is what is leading to the disappearance of this important symbol of French culture.

  • One of the few remaining public pissoirs
I walked to the Central Railroad Station this afternoon and purchased my train ticket for Thursday's ride to the airport. The station is about a five-minute walk away, perhaps a bit more with luggage, and there seems to be a train to the airport about every 10 minutes. My flight leaves at 10 am, so I'm planning to leave the hostel about 7 am to make sure I have plenty of time in case there are any snags at check-in or security.

Monday, February 02, 2015

February 2, 2015 -- Paris France Hyper Cacher

Yesterday evening I walked down to the Hyper Cacher supermarket, which is located not too far from where I am staying. I would translate Hyper Cacher as "Super Kosher." That is the kosher supermarket where a terrorist held a number of people hostage less than a month ago and killed several of them. I last visited it a few days after the hostage crisis ended and arrived just a few minutes after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry departed after laying a wreath in honor of the victims (his motorcade passed me just as I was approaching the supermarket.)

The Hyper Cacher supermarket in Paris where a terrorist killed several Jewish hostages
I found things there pretty much as I left it last time.The barricades were still up, and thousands upon thousands of bouquets of flowers had been placed along the outside of the barricaded area. There were only a few people present this time compared to scores of people last time I visited. I did not see the wreath that John Kerry had laid, but it is unlikely to have withstood the Paris winter weather.
As the following closeup shows, a single police officer walked up and down in front of the store.

A solitary police officer guards the Hyper Cache
In general, I noticed much more police presence on the streets of Paris than I did a few weeks ago. There are many policemen standing on corners or walking around carrying mean-looking rifles. The American Embassy is barricaded off and is guarded by perhaps a score of heavily armed officers. However, I have not noticed any more security than normal in the train stations, certainly much less than I observed decades ago during the Algerian conflict.

When I left the hostel on foot this morning, the temperature was just above freezing. Light snow was falling and melting as it hit the ground. I thought that the wet pavement might freeze over during the night, but it didn't quite get cold enough for that to happen. I walked all the way from the outskirts of Paris almost to the Arc de Triomphe. Two of my goals on this trip were to do lots of walking to test my injured left leg in preparation for a third attempt of doing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela from beginning to end this summer and to do more reading than I have time to do at home. The leg seems to be holding up fine, although it is still not completely healed from last summer's stress injury to the quadriceps tendons.

I stumbled upon the Stravinsky Fountain next to the Pompidou Center. I have seen video of the fountain in operation many times, but unfortunately it was not operating today, so I have yet to see it in motion in real life. The Stravinsky Fountain contains a number of whimsical figures inspired by Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The figures move, powered by the water that is pumped through them. Perhaps the day will come when I get to see it in operation.

The Stravinsky Fountain, unfortunately shut down for the winter
Below is the Pompidou Center itself, so named because it was commissioned by Georges Pompidou, who was president of France from 1969 to 1974. I am, of course, easily old enough to remember when it was commissioned and the controversy the design caused at the time. I have never been inside, but it houses a modern art museum and a center for music research.

The Pompidou Center
I suppose no blog entry about Paris could be complete without a photo of the Eiffel Tower. Here it is below, taken from the Place de la Concorde with the Luxor Obelisk in the foreground to the left side of the picture. I have only been to the top of the Eiffel Tower once, decades ago with my daughter Inge when she was still a teenager. I prefer to keep that memory rather than ride the elevator to the top again.
The Eiffel Tower right and the Luxor Obelisk left
Tomorrow I will take the train just before noon to Brussels, where I will stay two nights before flying back to Phoenix.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

February 1, 2015 -- Paris, France

On yesterday's train trip from Southern France to Paris, the train passed through areas where snow was falling and light blanket of the white stuff had accumulated on the ground. When I arrived in Paris after sunset, it wasn't that cold, and I was sorry that I had my winter jacket on over my sweatshirt.

Today is another matter. When I left the youth hostel this morning on foot, I felt overdressed and even considered returning to the hostel for a lighter jacket. However, the sky was heavily overcast, and as the day progressed the temperature became colder and colder. Then, a light rain started to fall.

I had intended to walk all the way to the Champs Elysees and then back to the hostel, but by mid-afternoon I decided to give it up, and I returned to the hostel by subway.

Below is one of the farmers' markets that I encountered on my walk into town. Even the supermarkets in France have fresh vegetables. For example, here tomatoes really taste like tomatoes. (Fruits are not always as fresh, however.) For really fresh fruits and vegetables, many people shop at farmers' markets, which are set up several times a week in multiple locations in cities throughout France.
A Parisian Sunday farmers' market
I had no particular tourist attractions in mind today. I decided to let luck lead me. The church in the following photograph intrigued me, so I stopped by. It's the Church of Saint Paul, Saint Louis. According to a historical marker outside, construction of the church began in 1627, and it was consecrated in 1641. It was once much larger, but much of it was destroyed, along with a lot of other church property in France, in 1802 during the French Revolution.
The Church of Saint Paul, Saint Peter
Why does the church bear the name of two Saints? According to a sign, the name Saint Paul was added to preserve the name after the nearby original Church of Saint Paul was destroyed.

I went inside and found the church to be crowded with worshipers and high mass being celebrated. I was somewhat surprised at the size of the crowd, because few French people actually attend church. They maintain a Catholic cultural identity, but they don't practice the religion. I was even more surprised when about 80 percent of those present went to the front of the church to receive communion.
Inside the Church of Saint Paul, Saint Louis
The next stop was City Hall or the Hôtel de Ville, as it is called in French. The French word hôtel often translates into English as hotel, but the word is used in France for many types of large, generally older buildings.

The front of the City Hall was festooned with banners of remembrance of last month's terrorist attack on the weekly humor newspaper Charlie Hebo. The slogan most used in France to evoke sadness for the attack is je suis Charlie or I am Charlie. The banner on the left translates as "Paris is Charlie," and the one on the right as "We are Charlie." The sign in the center reads "Charlie Hebo, honorary citizen of the City of Paris."

City Hall festooned with banners in remembrance of last month's terrorist attack.
Directly in front of city hall there was an ice skating rink. I saw one little girl fall down within a few feet of getting onto the ice. She had to crawl to the side of the rink and grab the railing to pull herself to her feet. I would have felt sorry for her, but she was laughing the whole time and obviously enjoying herself.

The ice skating rink in front of City Hall
I had forgotten that there was an important reminder of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the heart of Paris. It is the Tower of Saint Jacques, Saint James in English or Santiago in Spanish. I saw the tower on my last trip to Paris and then forgotten its existence. It is a restoration of all that is left of a church that was constructed in the Sixteenth Century and was destroyed during the French Revolution. It was once an important stopping place for pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compstela in Spain, the same pilgrimage that I will make my third attempt to complete this summer, although I will start near the Spanish border, not in Paris.
The tower of Saint James or Saint Jacques
I think I need to dress more warmly tomorrow. The rain is supposed to stop, but the temperature is forecast to drop below freezing tonight and hit a high of 4 degrees C or 39 degrees F tomorrow afternoon. I think I will finally get some use out of the long underwear that I packed. I have been fortunate that it hasn't been very cold up to now on this trip.

The day after tomorrow, I travel back to Brussels for a two-night stay before I fly back to Phoenix, where I'm sure that my lawn is overdo for a good mowing. My sister writes me that it's been raining a lot while I've been away.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 31, 2015 -- Paris, France

I made a big mistake today. I thought the train trip from Montpelier to Paris would be a one-beer trip. It turned out to be a two-beer trip, so I had to buy the second beer in the train's dining car, which cost me 5 euros! That's about $5.65 US. Believe me, I won't make that mistake again.

On the way to the train station, I stopped in McDonald's for a cup of coffee. It's only one euro in McDonald's, which cheaper than just about anywhere else. But as you can see in the photo, it's a tiny cup of coffee. It's very delicious, however.

(By the way, if you've noticed that I'm wearing the same green sweatshirt in every photo, you might be asking yourself if I wear the same shirt every day. Yes, I do! It does get washed, however, and I usually only pull it on over by T-shirt when I'm going outside. I don't think it smells too bad, but I do notice that in the pictures I am almost always alone.)

Enjoying a cup of coffee at McDonald's
Below is a close-up of the coffee cup. The French on the cup translates as "freshly ground." Generally, when  you get a cup of coffee in France, the beans are ground after you place your order, and then hot water is forced through the grounds. In other words, each cup of coffee is made individually starting with the roasted coffee beans. You can't get a fresher cup of coffee than that. If you buy a cup of coffee in one of the fancier McDonald's that has a separate McCoffee counter, you pay 1.20 euros, and you get your coffee in a tiny china cup. That doesn't seem to make it taste any better, however.

McDonald's coffee from freshly ground coffee beans
Many people who read this blog are in Europe, and I don't have to explain to you how good European coffee can be. Some people's idea of a good cup of coffee, however, is that mass-brewed stuff that they sell at StarBucks.

Also on the way to the station in Montpelier, I snapped the following picture of a protestant church, or more accurately, a protestant temple. In France, Catholics have churches and Protestants have temples. Of course, Jews have synagogs (or synagogues if you have a hang-up in favor of archaic spelling), and Muslims have mosques.

A Protestant Temple near the Montpelier train station
I like the fact that the Montpelier train station doesn't have the horrible yuppie rock music playing over the loudspeakers that you hear in almost every store and coffee shop in most of the world these days. Instead, there is a piano, and anyone who wants to may sit down at it and play. The young man who was playing when I snapped this picture seemed very talented. Others play not so well, but even a poor musician playing on a real piano sounds better than piped-in, low-brow crappo. Oh the big red box on the right of the picture is a ticket machine.

A traveler playing the free piano in the train station
Below is a picture of a French high-speed train that I shot from another platform while waiting for my train. They are called TGVs, which stands for Trains de Grande Vitesse. That literally translates as "trains of great speed." The train I took looked similar except my train was a double-decker, and my seat was on the upper deck.

A French TGV or high-speed train
On a test run, one of these trains attained a speed of 575 kilometers per hour or 357 miles per hour. On normal runs, trains can hit speeds of 322 kilometers or 200 miles per hour, although most of them travel a bit more slowly than that, say around 150 miles per hour.

In the first part of the trip, I had four seats to myself. Behind the facing seat sat a woman who... let's say she occupied more than her fair share of space. She had a poor little dog with her, which was a bit cramped for room, so it crept under the seat and came over to ride with me. You can see the pleading look in the dog's eyes. "Please don't send me back to squeeze in next to that fat woman!" Oh, the other object in the picture is my right leg. No! No! The dog didn't do what you're thinking, although it does looks as if it's considering such a move.

A dog pleads with me not to send it back under the seat to its mistress.
Statistics from where the blog views came from so far this week (with a few hours left to go before it ends): USA 73, Germany 20, Ukraine 11, France 6, Spain 5, and one each for Indonesia, India, Japan, and Poland.

Friday, January 30, 2015

January 30, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

Today is my last full day in Montpellier. Tomorrow I'll take the train to Paris as I work my way back to Brussels and my flight back home to Phoenix.

Today I decided to visit some non-tourist places including the large Polygone shopping center. In Arizona, the traditional large multistory shopping mall with its department store anchors has almost disappeared in favor of strip malls, where the shopper can drive up to the store and park right in front of it. The traditional multistory department store has also almost disappeared in Arizona. Both are very much alive in France. There is still an advantage to being able to wander around a large shopping mall and ogling the offerings of small shops instead of just driving from Walmart to Costco and then to Target.

The photo below shows the hordes of people entering and leaving the Polygone shopping center near the Place de la Comodie here in Montpellier. There is a parking lot in the subbasement, but most people take public transportation to the area and then walk to the shopping center. This benefits other businesses located nearby that shoppers must walk past to reach the Polygone.

People entering and leaving the Polygone shopping mall
Inside, the shopping center looks a lot like traditional shopping malls used to look in the USA, and may still look in some parts of the country as far as I know. This is one of the two periods of the year when stores in France are permitted to hold sales (soldes). Hence the sign to the right of center of the picture below with the word "soldes" at 50% to 60% off. 

In most countries of the world, a store can hold a sale anytime the management decides to do so. Holding a sale with marked-down prices is illegal in France except during the two six-week periods when the national government allows it (up from five weeks last year). There is a bit more flexibility allowed in some cities, especially in cities on the border with other countries. If you own a store and get stuck with some stock that is not moving, you may not just mark it down in price to try to get rid of it. You have to hang onto the stock until the dates when the French government allows markdowns. Do otherwise, and you will face harsh justice.

Inside the Polygone shopping mall
Despite the efforts of the French government to reduce cigarette smoking, France is still a country of smokers. Through the 1970s, roughly 2 out of 3 French men smoked. The government has managed to get that figure down to 1 in 3 for both men and women. France has tough anti-smoking laws with a fine up to 300 euros for violations (about $340 US at the current rate of exchange). However, the law suffers from lax enforcement, and it is still sometimes difficult in France for non-smokers to avoid secondhand smoke. In 2016, France plans to implement the world's toughest anti-smoking law. In remains to be seen if that law will finally make France a country that is friendly to non-smokers. Tobacco sellers threaten to turn out hordes of French people to demonstrate in the streets if the law goes into effect. However, about 70 percent of French people support smoking restrictions, which is just about the percentage of French non-smokers.

I have only seen one person on the street "vaporing" or smoking an electronic cigarette. However, e-cigarettes are increasingly available here if not yet as popular as in the USA. I stumbled across the e-cigarette shop near the Polygone shopping center on my wanderings today.

An e-cigarette store
Finally a look at the inside of the Montpellier railroad station. Most of the railroad stations in France have not been modernized and looks like they were built in the 1800s, which they were. I prefer the old railroad stations. These modern ones seem sterile to me and remind me of airports and their association with the unpleasant experience of flying commercial airliners. This is the station from which I will take the bullet train tomorrow for Paris.

The railway station in Montpellier

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

I started re-reading a book about bicycle racing on my Kindle yesterday afternoon. I'll be back in Phoenix next Thursday, and two days later I'll be doing my first bicycle race of 2015. I will not have been on a bicycle for over a month, so I'll probably do poorly, but I am nevertheless getting the bicycle-racing bug. I'm psyching myself up by mentally rehearsing going through the one high-speed 90-degree turn on the course without panicking. A 72-year-old guy should probably not be taking corners at high speed elbow to elbow with other cyclists, but those other guys in the racing pack will also be close to my age, so I won't be the only aged nut out there.

The predicted rain for today turned out to be an all day very light drizzle. It was not enough to stop me from being out and about. One thing I have observed not only here at the youth hostel but also by touring the city at large is that very little in Montpellier is what it seems to be at first glance. Also such concepts as logic, reason, planning, etc. are not valued. I commented in earlier blog entries that almost everything here at the hostel is out of repair, but many things in the city outside the hostel are also not what they should be. The two things that do seem to work are the city's tram system and the railroad station. Of course, the latter is run by the national railway company and not by the City of Montpellier, and I haven't actually ridden the tram.

Everywhere one looks, the streets are torn up, but very little seems to actually get done. Some of the construction sites have workers present, and others just have machines sitting idly on the torn-up section of street with no one tending to them.

In the picture below, one of the guys is actually using a tool to do something. There is an operator seated in the machine, but I didn't observe the machine doing any work. The operator spent part of his time hanging out the window chatting with one of the other "workers." The guy in green seems to be checking messages on his cell phone, while one of the men in the orange vests watches the other rake some dirt around.
City employees hard at work
I'm staying in a very historic district of Montpellier, one of the original settlements that were later joined to form the city. Below is a shot of the street where I am staying. The two lighted globes on the left mark the doorway to the youth hostel. If it hadn't been for my GPS telling me "destination is on left," I would have walked by several times without realizing that the hostel was there. There are no visible signs until you are actually in the doorway. That may help explain why the hostel is almost empty.
The street where I am staying in Montpellier
Less than a block from the hostel is the statue of Jeanne d'Arc or Joan of Arc as we call her in English. If the picture looks blurry, it's because the statue itself is blurry. That is, it has been so badly eroded by the rain that Jeanne's facial features can no longer be made out. You might think that the statue has been standing there for hundreds of years, but it was erected in 1917. The sculptor must have been on a budget and not able to purchase a weather resistant stone such as marble. Apparently the custom of doing things poorly has been around for some time.

A statue of Jeanne d'Arc
Below is the city gate of the area where I'm staying. Well, actually it's not. It is made to look like the old city gate, but it is a recent construction.
A faux historic city gate
What I yesterday thought was an old Roman aqueduct, similar to the Roman aqueduct that carried water to the city of Nîmes, is actually neither Roman nor quite as old as I at first suspected. It is called the Aqueduct of Saint Clément and was constructed in the 1600s to bring water from a spring and reservoir 800 meters across a valley. It was, of course, built copying old Roman technology. An Italian I met while surveying the aqueduct jokingly told me it was a copyright violation and that he, a genuine modern Roman, should be receiving royalties from it.
The Saint Clément Aqueduct in Montpellier
The aqueduct terminates in the tank shown below, from which the water was distributed to fountains in the city below. The building that houses the tank looks to me a lot like the building in Nîmes that houses the remnants of that city's Roman water distribution center, except that in place of a metal tank, Nîmes' distribution point has a stone basin.
Water tank at end of aqueduct

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

January 28, 2015 -- Montpellier, France

[As always, you can click on any photo in this blog to see it in a larger format. Then use your browser's back button to return to the blog.]

I’m not sure when or how I’m going to upload this to the Internet. The WiFi connection here in the hostel conked out again this morning. So I’m writing this offline, and then I’ll probably go to a Fast Food joint and try uploading the text and pictures separately.

I once taught electronics, and I believe that if I could get five minutes alone with the router and WiFi access point, I could fix the problem, but the manager here insists that it’s a complicated problem and only the service provider, Orange in this case, can fix it. But then, there is very little in this hostel that isn’t broken, and given the attitude that everything is an immense problem that requires great effort to resolve (and therefore won’t be resolved). Well, it’s not my problem, although I feel reasonable confident that if I could spend 15 minutes alone with the equipment, I could have the problem resolved.

I did some random exploring of the city today to see what I’d stumble upon. The first thing I did stumble upon was the cathedral, which seems to me to be another example of the local custom of not doing things right. As you can see in the following picture, the accumulated grime was sandblasted from part of the outside, and then the job stopped.

Inside the cathedral while I was there, there was only one other person, a woman who was “working” behind a window. I put working in parenthesis, because she was talking on her cell phone, although there was a sign in the entrance prohibiting cell phone use in the cathedral. I suppose she was supposed to provide services to visitors, but she paid no attention to me.

I can’t get over the work that went into building these old cathedrals. I don’t know about this one, but I do know that most of the grand cathedrals of Europe were built during centuries. The stained-glass alone must have an enormous task.

Like Paris, Montpellier has its Arc de Triomphe. OK, the one in Paris may be many times as large, but who’s taking measurements? I’m sure that the people who commissioned this one were just as proud of it as the Kings of France were of the big jobbie in Paris.

The central square in Montpellier is the Place de la Comedie. I suppose it got its name from the Comic Opera House, which is the building at the rear of the picture. This is the place to hang out. Those who have money sit in the sidewalk cafes sipping coffee or beer, and those who do not sit among piles of empty beer cans on the sidewalk, usually with at least two dogs per person. It seems that to qualify as a genuine street person in France, you have to have at least two dogs, and you have to be in a state of constant inebriation.

There seem to be two main means of transportation in Montpellier, bicycles and light trail, called the tram here. There seem to be far more bicycles than cars on the streets, at least in the section of town where I am staying, and automobile drivers are very careful about yielding the right-of-way to both cyclists and pedestrians. As to the trams, one comes by every few minutes; each one is several cars long; and they are all packed with people.

Like many other European cities and even Mexico City in North America, Montpellier has a public system or rental bikes. When you subscribe to the system, you get a magnetic card, which you can use to unlock any of the bikes in one of the automated bike racks like the one shown in the picture. When you reach your destination, you leave the bike at another rack in the system, and a computer calculates how long you have been using the bike. This station is solar powered.

Another of the items that I stumbled upon is what looks like an ancient Roman aqueduct. If I had an internet connection, I would research it. Exploring it father is one of the tasks I have set for myself for tomorrow.

I also need access to a weather forecast. The last time I checked, rain was forecast during my stay in Montpellier. Today was warm compared to most winter days in Europe. The jacket over a sweatshirt felt good in the early morning, but by afternoon, I began to wish that I only had the sweatshirt with me and not the jacket.

Now, I’m going to visit someplace with free WiFi and hope I can sit there long enough to upload and format the pictures and text and make this look like a decent blog entry.

PS/ I sat out in the cold in the Place de la Comedie uploading the above and formatting thee pictures, and when I returned to the hostel, the manger and the day clerk were gone. A Dutch lady was working the desk. I explained the problem to her, she unplugged the correct WiFi/router box, plugged it back in, and within five minutes we had WiFi again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 2014 -- Montpellier, France

I spent a good part of today getting from Girona, Spain here to Montpellier near the Mediterranean coast of France. I am sitting in the youth hostel writing this, but I’ll have to go to a free WiFi in a fast food restaurant to upload and format the pictures and text, because like many things in this hostel, the WiFi is out of order. The credit card machine is also out of order, so I had to pay cash when I checked in. The vending machines probably are working, but they are sold out of beer! They do have orange juice and Coke, but who wants to drink that junk? I can’t wait to take a shower. I have no confidence that the hot water heater will be working.

I spent my time on the trains staring out the window at the scenery except when we were standing in a station, when I read. Most of the trip was over coastal planes except near the Spanish-French border, where we went through the edge of the Pyrenees. The train took tunnels through the few low mountains along the coast, but I could see snow glittering in the sunlight on the distant higher peaks. In addition to the snow-capped Pyrenees, I also got an occasional glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea.

Riding an almost empty train in Spain
The first train from Girona to the border was almost empty. I had an entire rail car almost to myself, as you can see in the selfie above. The later trains in France were fuller but were never cramped. One advantage to taking the regional trains is that there is more space. Second class in a bullet train is just as cramped as flying economy minus the seat belts.

The Spanish regional train was one that stops at every single village between Girona and the border. Most of them are so small that they don’t have a train station, just a platform on either side of the tracks and a shelter to get out of the rain in bad weather. The only way to buy a ticket is to purchase it on the train from the conductor. Below is a photo of one of the train stops that I snapped through the train window. No, the building across the street is not the train station. The only thing resembling a station is that little graffiti-covered shelter on the platform.

A train "station" in Northeast Spain
One of the cities that looked to worth a visit on a future trip is Beziers. I snapped a photo of it as the train was approaching the station, and the glare in the photo is the reflection from the train window.

Bezier as seen from the train window
I also had time on the train to reflect on some of the people I met at the Girona hostel. One was a retired Italian merchant sailor who spoke no Spanish but fairly good English. He claimed to also speak Turkish, and I took him at his word. He seemed to be living at the hostel and said he was taking courses in Spanish and having his teeth worked on at a cheaper price than he would pay elsewhere in the European Union. He spent his days wandering around the lobby, talking to anyone who would listen to him and to some people who wouldn’t, taking a break from time to time to go out into the street in front of the hostel to smoke a cigarette. He said he was 66 years old, but felt much older, which he blamed on the cigarettes.

The hostel was also full of young Erasmus students. Erasmus is an exchange program among universities, which I also took part in the year I studied in Grenoble, France. There was a whole group of Mexicans Erasmus students, whom I placed immediately when one of the young ladies didn’t understand something that was said to her and replied ¡Mande! To my knowledge, Mexicans are the only Spanish speakers who use that expression to request that someone repeat a phrase that was not understood.

There was also a young female student from Portugal, who spoke perfect English. When I mentioned that I planned to be in Portugal in late summer and was going to brush up on my Portuguese in preparation, she said I needed bother. She claimed that everyone in Portugal speaks English, especially in the south of the country. I will see in the summer, because my flight home leaves from Lisbon.

It was interesting to see the one language change and the other not when I crossed the border. On the Spanish side, all place names were in two languages: Catalán and Spanish. On the French side, the sides were in Catalán and French. Part of Cataluña lies on each side of the border, but on the French side one hears mainly French spoken. On the Spanish side, the spoken language is mainly Catalán.

I was a bit concerned about changing trains in Perpignan, France, because I only had five minutes to make the connection. I needn’t have worried. When my train arrived, the other was already waiting on the other side of the station platform, and the conductor on the first train was kind enough to point that out to me.

One last note is about the friendly, open manner of the people here in the South of France. They seem almost like the Spanish and quite different from the reserved attitude of the French farther north. They even tolerate my lousy French, whereas in the north of France, when people hear me mumbling in French, they usually immediately switch to English.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

January 26, 2015 -- Girona, Spain

Today will be my last full day in Spain until the summer. Tomorrow I start my way back north with the first stay-over in Montpelier, France.

The euro is dropping in value daily, which means that every time I use my US credit card to pay for something, I get a better exchange rate. It was valued at $1.18 when I started the trip, and this morning it is just above $1.11. It's bound to drop farther during the course of the day as the exchange markets react to yesterday's Greek elections.

Yesterday was a day of touring museums, thanks to a young Italian lady named Anna who is a receptionist here at the hostel where I am staying. She gave me a wristband that gets me into Girona’s museums for free. Here is what Anna looks like. By the way, the ugly guy beside her is me.

Anna from Italy with your blog author
Anna has made everyone’s stay here a pleasure. She talks in a lively manner to everyone, always has a smile on her face, and laughs at every little mishap. I don't know how many languages she speaks, but I noted Italian, English, Spanish, Catalán, and a bit of French. She may speak more.

I did get inside Sant Feilu Basilica today. It appears that it closes for a few hours around midday, and that’s when I showed up yesterday. Following is a picture toward the altar in the main chapel. I didn’t use a flash out of respect, so the picture is a bit dark.

Inside the Basilica of Sant Feilu
Right above the Basilica on the hillside sits the cathedral, which I also visited. I could only photograph the outside, because in the entranceway was a sign prohibiting cameras, dogs, booze, and at least a dozen other items that I don’t remember. I was tempted to break the rule and take a snapshot anyway, because the inside of the cathedral is a delight for the eye, but that nasty little voice inside me that’s always spoiling my fun told me not to.

The cathedral in Girona
As I was inside, yesterday being Sunday, mass was being held in one of the side chapels and piped over a sound system throughout the church.  I peeped in, and there were hardly any worshippers. I believe the mass was being conducted in Catalán, because I didn’t understand a word. I would have understood had the mass been conducted in Spanish.

Another interesting place in the same area are the Arab baths, which were apparently neglected for centuries after the Arabs were driven from Spain but are now a museum. The picture below is of the main room, which was crowded with tourists. There were also other smaller chambers.

The Arab Baths at Girona
The Archeological Museum held, among other items, a collections of antique machines once used in printing. I recognize the machine on the left as a Linotype, used for setting type in the days before laser printers and copy machines. When I was in high school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, one of the programs offered was printing, and I remember seeing a student seated at the Linotype typing away. Above him there were motors running and belts whirring. Every time he typed a letter on the keyboard, a piece of type bearing the same letter would fall down a chute and land in the proper place in the line of type (hence the machine’s name). When an entire line had been typed, it would be cast in metal as one piece.

The Girona Archeological Museum has a large collection of old printing equipment
I graduated from high school (barely) in 1960, and I remember that Linotype machines were used for years afterward, so they must have still been around until the early 1970s.

I cannot resist including a picture of an old vacuum tube radio. In the 1950s, when I was in my early teens, I had a radio of about this vintage in my room. It was already out of date by then, which is why I got to keep it. I connected a long-wire antenna to it and used to listen at night to stations as far away as Chicago. It was that radio and a crystal radio set that I built that got me started in my first career working in electronics.

The large vertical tube-shaped objects are what we used to call condensers, although the more-common name today is capacitor. Today, of course, the circuitry to do the same function as this radio receiver can be placed on a very small microchip.

The innards of an old vacuum-tube radio receiver.