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Cruising to Europe then touring by train; low-stress travel

Spoiler alert: If, while sailing from the New York Harbor on the Queen Mary 2, you ascend to Deck 13 to glimpse the Verrazano Narrows Bridge’s underside, you may flinch. Even if you know the ship was designed to clear it by 12 feet, you’ll experience a strong optical illusion to the contrary.

Then, above the band, dancers and international flag-wavers, you enter open sea.

My husband, Robin, and I left New York for Southampton on Aug. 19, 2015. We might have had a much shorter, cheaper “bucket list” trip if we flew, but our travels are limited to North America. . .or ships. The crossing had taken five days until recently, but now requires seven or eight. That saves energy, makes the ride gentler, and – as our excellent and candid travel agent (Charles Turner, of Harrisonburg, Va., U.S.) explained – adds profit.

Won’t it be boring, friends had asked — a week with nothing in view but the sea? It proved the opposite – especially eastbound, with the mini-jet lag effect of setting clocks ahead almost daily.

There were five swimming pools; numerous lectures; planetarium shows. (I only wished deck lights could cycle off to take advantage of dark sky.) Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts troupes staged stunning productions and led acting workshops. (In an exercise where we were dealt cards assigning our “status,” for classmates to guess, I drew the king . . . so told the “captain” my poor dear doggies were allergic to his cat, and kitty must go.) Another highlight was being pulled up to dance by London musical star Phillip Browne.

080716IMG_1284 QM2 Deck 6 pano (3)


Yet we could have enjoyed more time sitting in deck chairs, listening to waves against the hull while looking for whales or dolphins (some sighted, though not by us). I loved the blue patches that appeared just below the pristine foam, and at dusk, clouds dimming the line where sea meets sky. Sighting any passing ship was an event, as were movements seemingly from animals that never surfaced. Two miles deep, in places.

Lifeboats (euphemistically, “standby transport vessels”) came in intact and collapsible models. The intact ones provided deck shade. (Later I read the Lusitania’s collapsible lifeboats proved unseaworthy; I hope the design has improved.)

A crew of 1,200 served approximately 2,620 passengers — 1000 British, 800 American and citizens of 37 other nations. Three strolls around Deck 7 made a mile. There is no “class” designation today, although our cabins – on Deck 6 eastbound; 5 westbound – were among the few windowless, hence least expensive ones. I might call them the closest equivalent of steerage, had they not been made up twice daily with mints on pillows. A bargain, though I missed waking to daylight.

I wasted time and worry wrangling with erratic shipboard online connections. The most thankless job on “the Queen” may be that of the Internet manager, who singlehandedly served nonstop queues of complainers. Next time, I should stay offline until debarking.

We breakfasted and lunched in the King’s Court cafeteria, and dined in the elegant Britannia. We’re both more comfortable in denim than the formal wear required many nights, but the dinners made it worthwhile. My favorite desserts consisted of ice cream in three small, variably flavored scoops — perhaps plum, lemon and ginger, or kiwi, amaretto and pomegranate — accompanied by a sweet cracker. They were filling but, I liked to think, less caloric than Tastee-Freez fare.

I found some aspects of QM2 culture strange. In a captain’s reception line, I held out my hand and felt embarrassed when informed, “We don’t shake hands.” Some clothing, such as blue denim, was prohibited in public areas. Such rules, however, were often ignored without reprimand. (Is there an unwritten compromise between rules to satisfy those seeking elegance, versus lax enforcement to accommodate scofflaws?)

Late in the journey there were some squalls and rocking, but we never came close to seasickness or heard complaints of it. That problem was ubiquitous on the gorgeous, original Queen Mary, ship-history lecturer Brian Hawley said; she was far less stabilized.

For about the last day, birds heralded the approach of land. Disconcertingly, the morning we debarked in Southampton, a murder-suicide not far from our home filled the London papers because the shooter, a former TV cameraman, had provided live video. We boarded a coach to London and began a hundreds-of-miles journey with my 50-lb. roller bag, day backpack and hack-proofed handbag, and Robin’s large roller-ZipSak and dilapidated shoulder bag – mostly on rails offering no checked baggage.

At the Tower of London, we met up with friends from home for a lively tour of the city’s renovated Docklands as lights came on over the Thames.

We barely missed an anticipated Tube strike – one of several fortunate transportation- strike misses for us. Advice to travelers in unfamiliar subways: Be agile, fast and not halt, lame, or escalator-phobic (I was forced to tough out my phobia). Orient yourself. (We never grasped an essential connection between London’s Circle and Jubilee lines.) And in London, do mind that message, “Mind the Gap.”

Having once spent three delightful weeks in the UK, we used our two days this time for pilgrimages to iconic authors’ homes. Dorchester South, aka Thomas Hardy’s “Wessex,” contains his cottage birthplace and later estate, Max Gate. Having just read Far From the Madding Crowd, it felt like stepping into the story: the heath, a performance of regional tavern music and tales, and everywhere, sheep – perhaps descendants of those hapless creatures driven over a cliff by Gabriel Oak’s dog or made deathly ill gorging on clover.

Thomas Hardy's birthplace

In Rye, site of Henry James’s elegant Lamb House, we lunched at the Mermaid Tavern – “rebuilt, 1420,” says its sign. Falstaff could have felt at home among its narrow halls, lumpy floors and portraits of monarchs and mermaids. We glimpsed the English Channel from the medieval Ypres Tower.

Our train to Ashford, where we would change for London, was not running (due to a strike?) — but a bus driver rounded up passengers and hit the country roads at breathtaking speeds to arrive just in time.

On to Paris via the Eurostar (a.k.a. “Chunnel”) — a quick, uneventful trip beneath the Channel, though a ferry might have been more fun. An accommodating, unmarked cab hailed us at rush-hour Paris Nord. Obvious rubes, we gawked at the Seine and Champs-Elysees as our driver chattered exuberantly along his circuitous route to our lodging. The distance: at most, 1 ½ miles. The fare: 100 Euros!

Our enthusiasm for la Rive Gauche undampened, we checked into the 17th-Century L’Hotel Residence Henri IV. Its tiny elevator took us to a room with royal portraits and a breeze from the garden. Breakfasts were excellent. We were on Rue des Bernardins, a street to which Victor Hugo devoted a chapter in Notre Dame de Paris (a.k.a. The Hunchback) — which I would read after returning home, discovering sites I’d recall and others which I could kick myself for having missed.

Dining at a patio restaurant nearby in the Latin Quarter (so named from a time when the arrondisement housed mainly Latin-versed scholars), I ordered “La Greque salat.” Robin had to ask the meaning of “pavette a lechalotte chemise,” after my phone’s translator conveyed it as “Bib has lechalotte shirt.” (It was steak with shallots and fries.) Two notions we’d heard about Paris appeared outdated: food portions smaller than in U.S. restaurants (I wish!) and natives rude when tourists mangle their language (non).

We walked along the Seine while artists and booksellers packed up. Rue des Bernardins extends onto Pont de l’Archeveche, which twinkled after dark – reflecting thousands of Paris’s legendary “lovers’ locks” that spring up on fresh bridges whenever authorities, protective of infrastructure, have removed them.

070716IMG_1709 Our lock on Paris bridge Pont de l'Archevêché (3)

Circling the nearby Notre Dame cathedral with those glorious windows and flying buttresses, we told ourselves, YES – this was Paris! Being among the spirits of Quasimodo, Esmerelda, Jean-Paul Marat, Renoir, Camus, Proust and Edith Piaf scarcely felt real.

Next morning we purchased our own small lovers’ lock, autographed it and linked it among countless companions. Within hours it disappeared under a fresh layer, but my photo shows it beside one other lock bearing legible names: “Masha and Mohamed.” Since Paris’s November tragedy, I’ve thought of those unknown, life-affirming lovers, hoping they are OK.

Approaching the cathedral nave we encountered cheerful demonstrators in pink tee-shirts, their message untranslated, and bowing, hand-clasping, black-clad mendicants who might have looked the same in Quasimodo’s time. Je ne regrette rien . . . but since reading Hugo’s description of the view, I regret not climbing those towers.

070716IMG_1701 Notre Dame framed in trees at night (3)We did ascend le Tour Eifel — no longer among the world’s tallest, but unique for visible gridwork and giant wheels. From the top, Paris appeared surprisingly flat. We enjoyed speeded-up views of it via Le Bateau Parisienne beneath the Seine’s 37 bridges, a Big Bus Tour, and Le Metro. We appreciated helpful fellow-Metro passengers, despite station closures with stairways ascending to sorties (exits) that turned out to also be closed. We were amused by the logo for sortie, a little green stick figure seemingly running for his life.

At Cluny la Sorbonne, site of le Musee National de Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages), a courtyard with massive wooden doors contains a cistern with a gargoyle worn smooth over centuries. My great-uncle Howard studied at the Sorbonne in the late 1800s. I wondered, now, how Paris appeared to that preacher’s son from rural Virginia.

The day we toured the Louvre, farmers brought 1,800 tractors to the Champs-Elysees for a protest we never saw. Our very knowledgeable, English-speaking guide, Isabel, showed us the Winged Victory (I guessed correctly that the replaced wing was the right); the Mona Lisa, plus Da Vinci’s John the Baptist (viewed ambiguously as saintly or satanic); and Venus de Milo (perhaps neither sculpted in Milo, intended to represent Venus, nor acquired quite ethically). After three hours’ uninterrupted standing, my senses were dazzled but my arthritic knees tormented. Isabel snapped when she spotted me sitting a bench; for tour participants, that privilege was “Interdit!”

Sur les rivières: Paris had just begun feeling real when we left it. Our 11-day Avalon Burgundy/Provence cruise (allowing 6 ½ days on the water) began with some down time at a hotel near l’Arc de Triomphe. (We skipped the Avalon’s Versailles tour in favor of a tour of Montmarte that failed to fill.) Next came a day of two train and three bus rides.

TGV trains (trains a grand vitesse) reach 200 mph but induce neither thrill nor terror, only eerily blurred landscapes. Our bus guide from Dijon to Bourne announced, “Dijon has many wonderful things, but unfortunately, you won’t get to see them.” (We learned the green grape seeds for Dijon’s eponymous mustard now come from Canada.) After repeatedly lining up for buses, we passed ancient hillside castles which blurred in memory with strip malls and diesel fumes. Wearily, at Chalon-Sur-Saone, we boarded the Avalon Poetry II and began our glide down the Saone River.

Meals onboard, especially the regional breads and wines, were superb; the winding, narrow rivers, at least as lovely as pictured. Next morning, in Tournus, we visited the 10th-Century St. Philibert Abbey. Trailing up and down its dark stone stairways, hearing a choir somewhere, we gawked as tourists do who come from places where 18th-Century buildings are “antiquity.” Our bon-vivant guide pointed out the nearby “pipi chapel” – rustic, but free.

Poetry II’s officers were mostly Dutch; the service staff – as on QM2 – multi-national; the 120 passengers, from Australia (visiting Europe during their winter), New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. The kitchen crew put on an excellent show one night, featuring a traditional Philippine dance.

Somewhere at a riverside flea market, I purchased for five Euros a small statue of St. George slaying his dragon, a souvenir for my young action figures-obsessed grandson.

I awakened before dawn once as the ship started moving, climbed on deck and saw Orion and the stars of Pegasus.

070716IMG_2103 Avalon Poetry II (3)

From the ship we saw nearly countless vineyards, swans and large gulls. The top deck was vacated whenever the ship passed through one of its course’s many locks. Locks, we learned, control the speed that a boat goes through a waterway. Often we’d see a gate open or close, or be surprised to spot a wall, inches from a window and appearing to move, but never could observe a lock passage in entirety.

At Lyon’s Fourvière hilltop we viewed the 11th-Century chapel and “minor” 1880s basilica. Our guide pointed out Mont Blanc, nearly 100 miles distant, and led us through one of the traboules – secret, narrow, centuries-old alleys remaining networked through the city, and used by the Resistance during Nazi occupation. Lunch at the venerable Café Bellecour was a treat: roast beef, potatoes, peach pie.

Lyon was where the Poetry II left the pale Saone — described metaphorically, in French tradition, as a woman – and entered the darker, deeper Rhone, dubbed masculine.

070716IMG_2324 Pont du Gard (3)In Viviers, a night hike culminated at the 14th-Century Cathedral of St. Vincent, smallest in France but impressive. The organist engaged to play for us ecumenically added “Amazing Grace” to his repertoire. Recalling, from the Tournus abbey, medieval stone-face depictions of cats as demons, we encountered a very different human-feline association, with the Viviers cathedral’s affectionate, resident buff-colored cat, a natural schmoozer.

The lovely cobblestones had made my knees feel all of my age. The next morning marked mon anniversaire de soixante-dix ans – or as Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “How terribly strange to be seventy.” The Pont de Gard aqueduct near Avignon made a fine memory. The ubiquitous photos cannot convey the scope of the intact, soaring stone structure straddling the Gardon’s whitewater, above olive groves. Our local guide confessed that in her youth, at night, she and her friends climbed the prohibited summit where the Romans had channeled water. That evening, concluding the shipboard dinner, I was surprised by a burst of music as staff serenaded me, bearing a chocolate cake implanted with a Roman candle shooting sparks. I did not try to blow it out. Someone at our table said the rest of my life would be “on borrowed time,” but when I announced, “Je suis vieux,” a kind lady from Quebec insisted, “No, you are not old!”

070716IMG_2382 Colisseum at Arles (3)At Arles, we gawked at a Roman coliseum, noticed its uncanny resemblance to a modern sports stadium, and tried to wrap our minds around ancient gladiatorial contests where the town’s lucrative annual bullfights would occur that night. Arles commemorates its most famous former resident with Vincent Van Gogh prints positioned in front of scenes he painted. We were bussed to St.-Remy through a countryside with fading sunflower fields. St.-Remy’s former monastery, where Vincent spent the final two years of his brief, tumultuous life, was, and remains, a mental hospital. Current patients’ artworks are displayed. The pastoral setting felt peaceful and restorative, but antique hospital relics were disconcerting: patients were once tightly confined in “therapeutic” tubs, doused with cold water and sometimes left overnight.

Many delightful guides showed us the port sights – mostly local residents, French, Dutch, Polish, West Indian and more, possessing various degrees of English fluency but all helpful, charming and conveying senses of place and humor – with one exception. Our guide in Arles and St.-Remy rattled off statistics grimly, made it plain that questions annoyed her, and gave vague directions as to reconnoitering for the bus. Robin and I – distracted in the close by Van Gogh’s rendition of papillons (butterflies) – nearly missed it and were scolded.

Monaco. We debarked from Poetry II near Nice for a bus ride down a hilly coast. Having never seen the Mediterranean, I almost held my breath at fragmentary glimpses, feeling somewhat as I had in childhood, approaching the beach. At last came the sea — azure, shimmering, with palms and speedboat contrails. We checked into Monaco’s Le Meridien for the cruise’s final night plus another on our own. A long swim in the sea was a treat; the sand, strangely quicksand-like; water, perfect. I watched boats assembling for a regatta; then, a big seagull slowly crossing the rope marking the cove’s edge. Never flying nor emitting a sound, he occasionally nibbled something from the water or made expressionless eye contact. He was in no hurry; he was free.

070716IMG_2603 Monaco - Copy (3)

For humans visiting Monaco, Montecarlo, or la Riviera, aka la Cote d’Azur, almost nothing is that. As per our Paris arrival, we encountered a 100-Euro surprise — at the hotel’s buffet lunch. (I don’t want to remember its room rate.) Later, we strode quickly past a casino to find a nice beach-side pizza joint.

A French guide led a tour of the Palace area on le Rocher (“the Rock”), Monaco’s spectacular overlook. We learned the Grimaldi brothers, ancestors of Grace Kelly’s prince, began their dynasty seven centuries ago by knocking on the door of le Rocher’s fort, disguised as monks; then massacring all within.

Northbound. After some challenge finding our platform at the Monaco station, we boarded a TGV train to pass in six hours over much of the nearly 600-mile route we had just traveled in 11 days. I had arranged an online service for a taxi from Paris Lyon to Paris Nord where we changed trains for Amsterdam; finding our driver entailed a frantic search, rush-hour noise rendering my phone virtually inaudible. Amsterdam stays awake all night, but at our Ibis hotel over the railroad yard, the trains soothed us to sleep. We could have explored the canals had it not rained much of our two-night stay. We never came across those fabled sweet aromas or, uh, provocative entrepreneurs that make many Americans raise eyebrows in Amsterdam. We did notice another apparently legal phenomenon there: thousands of bicycles, plus occasional trucks, wending their ways among pedestrians on sidewalks and plazas, somehow avoiding disaster. At the Van Gogh Museum we saw many of the artist’s famous zonnebloemen (sunflowers), and in the Rijkmuseum, noticed the feeling Rembrandt demonstrated for faces and characters in giant canvases including “Night Watch.”

The short ride to Brussels Nord concluded with the only bad day of our trip. Taxi drivers were on strike. It took us at least five hours between getting off the train and reaching our hotel no more than two miles distant — lugging our monstrous equipage up and down stairs and escalators, with countless wrong turns, baffling Metro layout, signs in Dutch, no staffed information desk, smartphone charge near zero. The arrival, finally, at our Metro stop was followed by a maddening search for our NH Grand Place Arenberg. No one we asked was familiar with it. I felt as if the ordeal would never end; feared one of us getting done in by our killer luggage as dusk came. Spotting the tiny side street into which the Grand Place, and its even tinier marquee, were tucked away engendered a joy worthy of all the bells from nearby Cathedral of St. Michael pealing simultaneously.

Christine EdwardsNext morning, the taxi strike was over. BBC’s website said the issue had been Uber. In the hotel’s breakfast room, I photographed a rack with six or seven newspapers, none in English. A manager nervously asked why I was taking the picture, in one of several encounters which showed me how speaking the same language can be a relative concept. We both spoke English, which he certainly knew better than I’ll ever know French (not to mention Dutch), but I could not dispel his concern that I was a dissatisfied customer. “Mais non!” I meant to say, but could not communicate that the colorful, multilingual headlines reminded me we were adventuring far from home. Moreover, I failed to explain how good it felt – having spent my career at newspapers and grieved their decline – to see some of them thriving globally. Unnecessarily, that manager apologized. The following morning, an International New York Times appeared there.

We lunched at a sports bar (discovering Brusselians’ feelings are hurt if you request a Michelob), and in a downpour, found the Parliamentarium and toured the impressive seat of the European Parliament. Overhearing my mention of being “refugees of the taxi strike,” some Australians on a tour bus laughed. I felt foolish, reminded what a “First World” problem our little misadventure had been, in weeks of news filled with the ordeals of real refugees. This March, after the bombing in Brussels, I would recall the good Samaritan/Brusselians we had met during our ordeal: young men who lifted our monster-bags up steps, wanting no remuneration; the tram driver who, after we had ridden the wrong direction to the line’s end, helped us with our bags onto a returning car; and previously, the man with his young daughter who overheard me whining, “I hate Brussels!” He had shown me the little button to press on the farecard machine to access English – changing the transaction from impossible to easy; then accompanied us onto the first train we needed, which coincided with theirs. I learned none of those good peoples’ names but hope they are all OK.

Westbound and home: After clearing Customs at Brussels Midi, heading toward the platform for the Chunnel back to London, we had a scare: a speaker announced our names, requesting, “Please come to the document desk.” Were we suspected terrorists? Plague carriers? No — I had carelessly left our train tickets on the counter! We were both road-weary. We loved the Grosvenor Hotel, above a Tube station and close to Buckingham Palace – where, as had occurred nine years earlier, we narrowly missed the Changing of the Guard. We strolled in a sunny St. James Park among families from all over the world, feeding ducks and swans. I met a woman who shared the story of the wonderful, ancient-looking plane trees (giant cousins to American sycamores) that fill London’s parks — planted early in the 20th Century, thanks to their resistance to coal pollution. Strolling on to Trafalgar Square, we heard a Japanese music festival and had our pictures taken with Romanians costumed as a Jedi and Mary Poppins – then, in the National Gallery, wandered among Titians; Cezannes; Monets; Seurats, more Van Goghs.

Lessons learned for future adventures: Ask directions more; be more ready to change plans. Keep electronic devices charged but spend less time with them. Mostly, travel lighter!

On the first day of autumn, returning to Southampton, I spotted a tree with deep red leaves. On the QM2 westbound, wind often whipped the decks. Captain Christopher Wells called conditions “typically North Atlantic”: always grey. Yet the water sometimes sparkled. Other times, breakers showed all the way to the horizon. We gave ourselves more time to watch the sea.

We enjoyed long dinners, with discussions and debates about world problems with our Britannia table mates, Renate and granddaughter Lucia, from Germany – the closest friends we made on the trip.

Sunset cruise view

We read, in detail, the history display beside our elevator, captioned by the distress signal “CQD.” It chronicled the final hours of the Titanic, heading, as we were, from Southampton to New York.

Only once on the Queen – while eastbound – we’d heard mention of a crew member recently lost at sea. Not until returning home would I learn from checking online that young Chilean chef Favio Onate Ordenes jumped or fell near Newfoundland four days before our sailing. He was never found, though QM2 reversed her course to search. I located a smiling photo of him, crafting one of the chefs’ creative fruit sculptures.

We rose at 4:30 am on Sept. 27 to see our harbor. Already the decks were crowded as we passed Lady Liberty, my many attempted shots of her blurring from the darkness, rain and weak zoom feature. I thought of forebears first seeing New York’s skyline as we were seeing it, sun rising behind us. Soon we were heading home to Virginia on our familiar Amtrak Crescent train.

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