Travelogue for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, 2009

Travelogue for France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, 2009

There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Welcome!  This is an online travel journal for my Summer 2009 trip to France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, which covers the following destinations:

  • Paris
  • Bayeux
  • Mont-St-Michel
  • Chartres
  • Colmar
  • Bruges
  • Ghent
  • Amsterdam
  • Delft
  • Den Haag
  • Haarlem
  • Zaanse Schans

Also, you should know that while I’ve embedded some photographs into the entries, many more from my trip are available on Flickr.



Sunday, May 31, 2009


Try as I might, that’s the word that’s repeating in my brain as I head off to Europe this year.  It’s my fourth solo trip.  I’m a seasoned traveler by now, so the apprehension I feel seems odd and misplaced.  First there was London in the summer of 2006, then a wider swing through the UK in 2007 ending with a week in Paris, and then last year Italy. Fourteen days spent living la dolce vita in sweet, lovely Italy. This time it’s a return trip to France to explore parts of Normandy and the Alsace, followed by a journey north and east into Belgium and the Netherlands.  It all sounds wonderful on paper—perfect, really—so it’s a shame that the entire enterprise is doomed from the start.

I’m not entirely serious when I say that, of course, but there is something to it. Unwittingly, the dates I locked in last fall in order to use my frequent flyer points conflict with my nephew’s high school graduation. That’s guilt-inducing enough, but to make matters worse I’ve developed a lingering foot problem that makes walking distances rather like stepping on a nail (over and over), which should make climbing into German bunkers near Omaha Beach and, quite frankly, all of Mont-St-Michel, interesting.

Weeks before I leave, an outbreak of swine flu has me worried about restrictions on international travel. In a mad and quite possibly vain attempt to stay well, I start carrying a bottle of Purell with me everywhere I go. Then, with just days to go, I find out that United Mobile, the company that operates the SIM card on my cell phone, is suddenly out of business and has taken with it all of the money I recently added to my pre-paid account in preparation for my trip. And finally, hours before takeoff, comes the surprising news that my “window” seat on Lufthansa, booked seven months ago, is actually—and ironically—in a row without a window. When I make a mental tally of these things, I know it could be far worse. In this economy, I’m fortunate to be able to travel at all, and yet it feels like a premonition of things to come. There are storm clouds on the horizon. Literally.

So let’s just cut to the chase.  Let’s get to the bottom line.  I’m writing this as a retrospective at home in Vermont in mid-winter, so I might as well say that this is going to be the story of a road trip that is filled with rain, transportation detours and delays, more rain, scaffolding and other forms of obstruction, a broken camera lens, and still more rain.  Really, a ridiculous amount of rain.  So, let’s just thank God here and now for Parisian tartes and café cremes, Belgian chocolate, and Dutch pancakes, before rewinding to the start of the story…


It’s early on a Sunday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting to board a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt.  This is what happens when you try to use years of accumulated points in your Dividend Miles account.  You get a tight connecting flight on a partner airline, although I suppose the upside—if I follow the Sarah Palin school of thought on foreign travel—is that I now get to include Germany on the list of countries that I’ve visited!

There is a general moan among the passengers on flight 427 when a short delay is announced for “cleaning and catering.”  Within minutes the crowd grows antsy and it is clear that there will be little patience for boarding etiquette.  Despite the usual invitation for families with small children to board first, everyone begins to press towards the door in an undifferentiated mass.  The Lufthansa employees seem to know it’s a losing battle, so they resort to social admonishment instead.  In a stern German accent, a man says: “I dit not know vee had so many children onboard dis flight!”

Filing in, though, I’m feeling a bit smug. We are told that the cabin is filled to capacity, every seat taken, but before leaving home I checked in online and was able to change my undesirable, windowless seat from 32K to 35A, a maneuver at the time that felt worthy of a fist pump.  But as I make my way down the aisle, I’m suddenly perplexed. Row 32 has a window, a perfectly fine window, identical in every way to every other window.  So much for the color-coded warning on Seat Guru’s floor plan.

As I settle into my new assignment, I find myself squeezed in next to a very large and already very sweaty woman.  She’s quiet and not at all inconsiderate, but between shoulder and knee, there’s truly no way to avoid full bodily contact.  It’s going to be a long and uncomfortable night.  I crane my neck to the right and for a moment stare wistfully at the nice-looking man sitting in the aisle seat of row 32, and the woman resting peacefully by the window next to him. Ah, fate, what have you done to me?

On the upside, we were scheduled to depart at 6:05 PM, and despite the all the nonsense over “cleaning and catering” it’s only 6:15 when we pull away from the gate, which when you think about it, isn’t bad at all.  But the delay has forced us far back in the queue for take-off.  It’s 7:00 by the time we lift into the air.  My one and a half hours of leeway in Frankfurt—an overly optimistic layover from the start—is shrinking into nothing…

Monday, June 1, 2009

It’s always hard to sleep on an airplane, but this has been darn near impossible. When I raise the shade on my window and feel the morning sun on my face, I’m glad the night is over. But with the end of one difficult situation comes another. I still have to make a connecting flight to Paris.

It’s 8:30 AM when we pull into Frankfurt and my next plane boards in 45 minutes. We’ve gained some time, but I wonder if it will be enough. I check my watch and figure I’ll be fine as long as the departure gate is nearby and the lines at passport control are short. When I check the monitors in the airport against the terminal map in my hand, I see that A36 is about as far away from B33 as it is physically possible to be and still be in Germany. Cursed.

I’m road weary and my foot is throbbing, but I move as fast as I can through the airport with my backpack and camera bag, down one corridor, then stairs, then passport control, then an elevator, then security, then more corridors with moving walkways. At least I think. I’ve lost track of exactly where I am. When I find the gate at last, past a series of Camel smoking stations enclosed in glass, their windows gray with a nicotine haze, I have no more than sixty seconds of satisfaction before the plane begins to board.

It is, in the end, an easy hour in the air, and when we touch down at Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, I feel ready to walk through my usual arrival routine. I call my family at home to let them know that I’ve arrived safe, if not entirely sound, and I pace nervously by the baggage carousel praying my suitcase made the connection in Frankfurt more easily than I did. Then, with all in hand, I head for the tourist information desk to buy a ticket for the RER, and while I’m at it, a 4-day Paris Museum Pass. Checking items off my list makes me feel confident, once again back in control.

The RER B is crowded and hot, so by the time I step off the train and drag my luggage up the stairs, my lungs are grateful for the clean, fresh air. It’s a beautiful day in Paris, the sun so bright that I have squint as I leave the station. I’m reentering the city exactly where I left it two years ago, on the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. On an afternoon such as this, it seems a shame to take a taxi to the apartment I’ve rented. I decide to walk instead, dragging my suitcase on wheels behind me across the cobblestones.

I turn up Rue Soufflot towards the Panthéon and pause to catch my breath near the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, where I spent my first lovely week in Paris in July 2007. I had hoped to stay there again, but this time found the prices to be well outside of my budget, hence my first brave attempt at booking an apartment online.

I turn right, then left, and walk until I reach the Place de la Contrescarpe, the neighborhood Hemingway wrote so fondly about in A Moveable Feast. I have my own fond memories of the place and of the Sunday afternoon I once spent there shopping and eating ice cream and watching folk dancers in the misting rain in front of Saint-Médard church. I am glad to be back.

As I turn down Rue Rollin looking for number seventeen, a blond haired woman approaches me with a generous smile on her face. It’s Sandy, and she and Philippe have been waiting for me in the flat.

They call the apartment, which is nestled behind the courtyard of an 18th century building, “My Little Home in Paris,” and that feels just right. It’s tiny in size, but perfectly cozy, and bathed with light. There is flat panel TV, a laptop computer, and a telephone that provides free international calls. There are shelves of maps and guidebooks and drawers full of napkins and placemats, electrical adapters and umbrellas. There is no kindness left undone.

We sit and chat for a while, but the initial adrenaline I felt upon reaching the city is fading away and my stomach is starting to growl. It’s a good thing, too, for without that incentive to move I might just curl up and take a nap here and now, and that would violate every rule I’ve every had about coping with jet lag.

I wish Sandy and Philippe a bon voyage to Florida and then set out on foot for the Seine. It’s nearly 4:00 PM when I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a stand next to Notre Dame Cathedral and inhale it while sitting on a park bench in the garden behind the church. Then, feeling fortified, I head to the Cité metro stop to do battle against the powers that be for a Passe Navigo Découverte.

Alas, I am no match for the surly woman behind the counter, who in French demands to see some proof of residency. I try to insist upon the truth, which is that tourists have a right to purchase the pass, but she is impatient with me and waves me away. Not to be undone, I march indignantly to the Saint-Michel station and try again, this time pulling a computer printout from my bag, with the key sentences underlined. It’s not necessary. The young woman nods pleasantly at me, bills the transaction, and even affixes my photo to the card. Perhaps it’s silly, but I feel a genuine sense of accomplishment afterwards. It’s a permanent card that can be easily recharged in the future, a tangible piece of evidence that says that I will return to Paris again.

I walk down Boulevard Saint-Michel, back towards the Luxembourg Gardens and stop in to Dalloyau along the way. I had adored their pale green pistachio macarons on my last trip and want desperately to taste them again. I buy two and head into the park to enjoy the snack, but they disappoint me somehow. They are not as fresh and soft as I remember, but crusty and overly sweet. Perhaps Thomas Wolfe is right. When it comes to some things, maybe you can’t go home again.

I wander through the Luxembourg Gardens for an hour or more, past the “L’Acteur Grec” statue to the shade of the Médici fountain, until exhaustion forces me home. I stock up on milk and juice at a local market along the Rue Mouffetard and pick up an onion tart at Blavette Daniel for a light dinner, which I eat around the small dining table in my apartment.

At 9:30, I start to change for bed when a sudden inspiration leads me out into the cool night air. I take the metro at Place Monge up the short distance to Pont Marie and from there walk across the Île Saint-Louis to the Pont de la Tournelle. The sun is setting in the west, behind Notre Dame Cathedral and its flying buttresses, leaving behind streaks of lavender and pink. At last, I take a long deep breath and feel as if I am exhaling, all at once, the stress that brought me here.

The worst is behind me, for I am in Paris.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This morning I am sitting at Café Delmas, watching the world go by. Soon, I’ll be heading to Bayeux for a two night stay, in part to squeeze in a tour of the D-Day sites before the 65th anniversary attracts larger crowds—as well as President Obama and his entourage—later this week. But for now, I feel lazy and content with my pain au chocolat and café crème.

The train to Normandy leaves at 12:10 PM from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station made famous in a series of impressionist paintings done by Claude Monet in the 1870s. To my eyes, its vaulted ceiling of iron and glass looks much the same, and the continuity across the intervening century impresses me.

By 2:15, I’m resting comfortably in the back seat of a cab heading for the Hotel Churchill. With a jovial smile, Daniel greets me at the front desk and hands me the key to room 200, which is (at least for me) unnecessarily large and expensive. It is testimony to the popularity of the hotel, or perhaps to the importance of the week, that it was—even seven months ago—the only room left.

I pause for a moment to enjoy the view out the window, which looks out across a sea of gray rooftops, from which the spires of Bayeux Cathedral rise in the distance. I decide to make that my first destination.

From Place de Québec, behind the hotel, I take a short walk down Rue Larcher before turning onto Rue de Nesmond towards the cathedral. It’s an impressive structure dating to the 11th century, both Norman and Romanesque. Made of a honey colored stone, the façade is ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques. The contorted faces are meant to ward off evil sprits, or so I’m told. I’ve seen these fantastical beasts clinging to the sides of churches all over Europe, and I usually find them more charming than frightening. But here their wildness is enhanced by the occasional tufts of vine and grass growing from cracks in the ancient mortar.

When I reach the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the cathedral, I pause for a moment to appreciate the tiny figure carved into the tympanum above the south portal. I’m certainly no expert, but last year’s trip to Italy taught me something. It’s easy to spot a depiction of the “Last Judgment,” and there he is, the Devil, guarding the gates to Hell.

Inside is another matter entirely. This is pure Heaven. So quiet and serene, in fact, that for a while as I wander from one side chapel to the next, I forget that this is the place where Harold swore allegiance to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the man named by Edward the Confessor, King of England, as his heir. It was this oath that Harold broke, leading to the Norman invasion and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which later through the charms of history gave him the far superior name of William the Conqueror.

Today, the cathedral owes its preservation to the speedy success of another invasion eight centuries later. Bayeux was liberated by the Allies soon after D-Day in 1944, which spared the structure—and its medieval stained glass windows—from the bombardment that flattened nearby Caen. I am grateful for that as I watch colored light spill out through the cobwebs that have collected in the window frames, like some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It’s a peaceful space and I would stay longer if it weren’t for my gnawing hunger.

In search of something to hold me off before dinner, I make a loop through the town, along Rue de Cuisiniers and its half-timber frame buildings, then down Rue Saint-Martin, to the riot of shops that line Rue Saint-Jean. For an unbelievably cheap €1.60, I buy a luscious pear and almond tarte from a pâtisserie called La Reine Mathilde and munch happily as I make my way to the Tapestry Museum.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry is really not a tapestry at all, but rather a long piece of embroidered cloth, said to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Measuring nearly 230 feet, it depicts in consecutive scenes the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England. For centuries, it was displayed once in a year in the cathedral for the Feast of the Relics, but since 1983 it’s been hanging behind glass in a darkened room in the city’s former Seminary.

With the museum’s audio guide planted firmly on my head, the experience is a feast for the senses. It’s all here. Edward the Confessor sending Harold to France, Harold shipwrecked and held for random along the way, Harold’s oath of loyalty to William, and the bloody aftermath of his defiance following Edward’s death. There is a Latin inscription along the way, but the message is overwhelmingly visual. There are soldiers in chain mail riding horses into battle, a hailstorm of arrows, and decapitated bodies littering the ground.

Afterwards, in the museum gift shop, I overhear a conversation between an American husband and wife. The wife, it seems, missed the crucial scene at the end where Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. In a deep southern drawl, tinged with disappointment, the man says: “But that’s the best part!”

I have just enough time to change clothes back at the hotel before making my 7:30 PM reservation for dinner at Le Pommier. It’s an expensive meal, but a well-earned treat. I order a glass of wine and three courses from the Norman cuisine menu—a salad with warm goat’s cheese to start, followed by medallions of pork in a Neufchatel cheese and cream sauce, ending with an apple pie served with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream.

At the table next to mine, a middle-aged couple is dining with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The girl is acting moody, pulling her fists deep inside her navy hooded sweatshirt. She doesn’t know what to order, but more than that, she doesn’t much want to be here, and from where I sit I’m not quite sure if her complaint is associated with this restaurant in particular, or France in general. When she looks over at my entrée, I show her the pork, which I can heartily recommend, but when she sees my bread plate a genuine smile grows across her face. “Oh, you have butter,” she says, animated at last. “H-o-o-o-w did you get butter”?

Ah, the French. They may be well known for their rich sauces, but it is true that they rarely serve butter with their bread. Nonetheless, here it is, unprompted and nearly overlooked, in a miniature crock on my table. The simple gesture brings pleasure to us both, something familiar far from home, and we both grin.

On my way back to the Churchill, I use my cell phone to call my nephew to wish him a happy 18th birthday, and then I linger to take some pictures of the cathedral, floodlit against a fading blue sky. I can see it still from my hotel window, until I pull close the drapes, turn out the lights, and fall into bed.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It’s 8:30 AM and I’m standing in Place de Québec waiting for a driver to arrive to take me on a full-day Battlebus tour of “American Highlights.” Like the Hotel Churchill, this too I reserved long ago in anticipation of the crowds that come to Normandy each year to mark the anniversary of D-Day. I was lucky enough to snag a place in their final group of the week. After this, they’ll be closed for several days to allow their guides to join in the events.

I had been promised a small tour on a minivan with no more than eight people, so as I wait in the cool morning air, I’m surprised to see a gaggle nearly double that in size. When two vans pull up in the square, it becomes clear that the company has added a second to satisfy the demand for tickets. There is a French driver, but just one guide, a cheerful Brit named Dale Booth, who is quick to explain that he will drive as well, and rotate between vans from one stop to another to give everyone a chance to ask questions. I would be disappointed in this ad hoc arrangement, and even a bit upset, if I wasn’t so immediately impressed by Dale’s knowledge and enthusiasm. From the start, I trust him completely.

He begins by laying out the day’s itinerary. The swell of visitors to the region has complicated things, so too have the preparations for President Obama’s visit to the American cemetery in Coleville later this week. To avoid the madding crowds and the U.S. Secret Service, Dale suggests doing the day’s typical itinerary in reverse. We will stop at the cemetery early in the day—the one made famous in the opening and closing scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Then, we’ll head to Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, break for lunch, and continue on to Utah Beach and Saint-Mere-Eglise. The first stop, however, is along a quiet country road, where Dale takes a moment to explain the bocage terrain in Normandy and the enormous obstacles its hedgerows imposed on Allied troops.

When we arrive at the American cemetery at 10:00 AM it is, as Dale had hoped, quiet and serene, nearly devoid of visitors, save for a group from Luxembourg who have come to lay a wreath at the foot of the bronze statue in the colonnade, and a company of U.S. soldiers in army fatigues. We have 45 minutes here and I spend the time slowly, starting at the memorial, then walking along the path overlooking Omaha Beach, down through the pines to the chapel and back, along a neatly trimmed lawn with rows of white crosses that arch toward to the sea.

I have several uncles who served in World War II, but none who crossed the English Channel that day to land on the beaches below. Still, I find myself moved to tears by the beauty of the place and the horror that it comforts. In my hand, I hold a map showing the location of some of the more famous graves—Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of a president, and the Niland brothers, whose deaths a day apart inspired the movie “Saving Private Ryan”—but try as I might I notice the uniformity of the stones more than the names, and I am struck by the overwhelming sense of anonymity it creates. Not the kind that is disrespectful of sacrifice, but rather the kind that elevates grief and attributes it to a common cause.

Before we go, I look out at the tents and metal bleachers being constructed for the week’s events. The reflecting pool has been covered to create a makeshift stage on which President Obama, Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, will stand just days from now. There will be journalists and camera crews and military bands, and every year a dwindling number of veterans will come, until one day soon they will come no more.

I’m not sorry to miss the speeches, for I would rather walk in silence among the ghosts.

Back in the van, we’ve got a half hour drive down to Omaha Beach and we pass the time by getting to know one another. I’m riding with a friendly family of five. Tammy and Steve are from Atlanta and they’re nearing the end of a trip with their three teenage children: Julia, Taylor, and Tucker. Tucker makes us all laugh when he decides that Dale’s accent makes him sound a lot like Austin Powers, which is, to a ten year old, a very cool thing. Dale takes the compliment in stride, although he’s clearly more intent on getting us all to rent the “Band of Brothers” DVDs. There are no acceptable excuses. We really must fix whatever is wrong with our lives to make time to see it.

Standing on Omaha Beach, Dale takes out his walking stick and draws diagrams into the sand to help us understand just how difficult the terrain was for the troops who landed there in June 1944. He points up to the remains of German defenses, known as Widerstand Nests, and tells us how they were able to provide a line of cross-cutting fire into the masses below.  And he explains why so few wounded were able to survive the initial assault on the beaches—they either drowned as the tide came in, or were killed by soldiers in the bunkers above.

It’s a beautiful beach, and it’s hard today to imagine the tide pools filled red with blood.  A World War II airplane circles overhead, and behind us a group of re-enactors in Army fatigues stand at attention by their jeeps and raise their arms to their foreheads in salute.  The past is everywhere.  But I also look to the left and see a woman walking her dog along the edge of the water. There is a concrete pier in the distance and the people on it may well be enjoying a view of the English Channel on a fine summer’s day as much as remembering D-Day. Dale says that this is what the French tend to do. They respect history and honor it, often in touching ways—especially in Normandy—but they live with it, rather than apart.  Omaha Beach is still a beach. 

We head west and visit Pointe-du-Hoc next, where Army Rangers once scaled the cliffs using rope ladders. The landscape is scarred deeply here. There are craters, the remains of German bunkers, gun emplacements, and rusted barbed wire.

We break for lunch at a local B&B, and then head off to Utah Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église, where a parachute and mannequin hang from the steeple of the church in honor of Private John Steele and the 82nd Airborne, recording an incident made famous in the movie “The Longest Day” (1962). Inside, a stained glass window depicts the Virgin Mary in blue, holding the baby Jesus, with paratroopers on either side descending into the village below, as if sent from Heaven itself.

Before we leave, we have some free time at the airborne museum across the street and Tucker is pleased when I spot a uniform with his name on the breast pocket.

Our final stop of the day is a visit to a tiny 12th century church in the town of Angoville-au-Plain. Dale wants to show us the monument outside that honors the work of Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore, who served as medics in the 101st Airborne Division. During the Normandy campaign the men used the church as a hospital and the pews for beds. They toiled for more than seventy-two straight hours to care for soldier and civilian casualties. Inside, as in Sainte-Mère-Église, a stained glass window commemorates their efforts.

As Dale explains, some of these memorials are donated by philanthropists and veterans groups, but most are paid for and maintained by local survivors and their descendents in small towns all across Normandy in recognition of the American sacrifice here.

Later, back in Bayeux, I linger over a pleasant dinner at La Fringale. I’m dining on boeuf bourguignon tonight, but it’s the fried potatoes on my plate that have me thinking. I’m reminded of the silliness following September 11th, where in a pique of anti-French sentiment, French fries were for a time renamed “Freedom Fries” on the menu of the U.S. Capitol cafeteria, and I am ashamed for those who accuse the French of being ungrateful.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I’m up early this morning, getting ready for a day trip to nearby Mont-St-Michel, which I’ve been told is the second most visited tourist attraction in all of France, after the Eiffel Tower, with three and a half million visitors per year. I shudder to think how many will be there today, given the beautiful weather outside the window.

I flip on the TV in my room as I’m getting dressed and tune it to the BBC. I love the BBC. Not BBC America, which I have at home in Vermont, but the genuine article. I find it comforting somehow, and unbelievably quaint. As I head out the door for breakfast, a reporter is winding up a story about local wildlife in which he invites viewers to call in and “give us your thoughts about squirrels.”

The Hotel Churchill operates a daily shuttle to Mont-St-Michel, so by 9:30 I’m resting comfortably in the front seat of an air conditioned minivan next to Sabrina, our driver, with a couple from Wichita, Kansas and a businessman from Montreal in back. At 50€ each for a round-trip fare, it’s an expensive option, but with few trains and poor connections between Bayeux, Pontorson, and the Mont, it’s wonderfully convenient.

The landscape around us is mainly flat, so though we are still miles away, it’s not long before we spot Mont-St-Michel in the distance, offering the profile of a ragged mountain rising out of the horizon. Sabrina pulls the van off the side of the road so that we can snap pictures.

As we drive in along the causeway, she recounts the legend of St. Michael the Archangel appearing in a dream to the local bishop in the year 708. The angel had instructed the bishop to build a chapel on a rocky island at the mouth of the river near Avranches, but the bishop ignored the command once, and then twice. On the third night the nocturnal visitor came again, this time pressing his finger to the bishops’ skull, burning a hole in the side of his head. Not surprisingly, the incident turned the man’s skepticism into profound—if terrified—belief and led him to begin work on an abbey in honor of the saint.

Today, the abbey and its cloisters, topped by a tall gothic spire, perch high on the rock, surrounded by gardens and medieval fortifications. At the base is a small village, with shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries along a narrow and winding lane optimistically titled the Grand Rue. As we pull into the car park, we can hear the sounds of military bands playing in tribute to the week’s 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

It’s a painfully tight schedule, with just three hours to visit the church, the town, and the surrounding tidal basin, so together we make haste up the long, steep hill, intending to start from the top and work our way down.

The abbey church is stark and bare, constructed of honey-colored stone. The 11th century nave and transept are Romanesque, but the choir, built several centuries later, is thoroughly Gothic, with tall pointed arches and matching windows above, supported by flying buttresses on the outside. From here, the audio guide I rented takes me to the cloister, and then through a long series of stairways, corridors, and rooms, including a chapter house and refectory.

It’s a mammoth complex, and its construction over time has a higgledy-piggledy quality that reminds me of being in a maze. Indeed, when I arrive at a room with a large wooden wheel, attached to ropes and pulleys, that was once used to haul goods from the base of the Mont, I imagine a hamster wheel enlarged to comical proportions, although here I’m told that it was propelled by prisoners… very unfortunate prisoners from the appearance of it!

I’ve had a brilliant time exploring, but I am beginning to feel desperate for the exit. It’s midday and my foot is throbbing. Between the drive to Mont-St-Michel and the long journey through the abbey, I haven’t been able to take any ibuprofen. I make my way out along the ramparts and the down through the village, stopping for a bottle of water to take my pills. I decide, too, to snack on a regional specialty, the Galette Bretonne. It’s a thick and slightly sweet butter biscuit, similar to shortbread. It has a nice flavor, but it crumbles easily and makes something of a mess.

The village is thick with tourists by now and the shops along the Grand Rue provide a veritable gauntlet of overpriced souvenirs—postcards and key chains, placemats and shot glasses. For a moment, I stand outside the window of La Mère Poulard to watch them make omelets, rhythmically whipping the eggs to a froth in a giant copper bowl.  But instead of lingering further in town, I decide to make my way out through the massive King’s Gate, back to the causeway and to the beach and bay beyond. It’s low tide, so the sea has receded enough to walk safely (for now) out into the sandbanks surrounding the island. The day is cool and breezy and when 1:30 comes, I regret having to leave so soon.

Back in Bayeux, I have a few hours to spare before my train back to Paris. I rest for a bit and then take a final stroll through the town, stopping to eat and to buy a small bottle of Calvados to take home. The journey back is quiet and relaxing, alone in a private compartment with plush gray seats that reminds me of the train Harry Potter takes to Hogwarts.

By 9:00 PM, we pull into Gare Saint-Lazare, and I have only the metro ride home, with a pesky change of line at Châtelet. The Rue Mouffetard is growing dark and the bed in “My Little Home in Paris,” just around the corner, beckons.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This morning, I’ve taken the metro from Cardinal Lemoine to Odéon, where I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of rush hour traffic trying to get my bearings. I’m looking for 76 Rue de Seine, which is the Left Bank address of the famous Gérard Mulot. I have an unrivalled sweet tooth, so for me the pâtisseries of Paris are a kind of heaven, made up of pastel-colored macarons, flaky croissants, and buttery madeleines. This one comes highly recommended, mentioned appreciatively in guidebooks from Frommer’s to Lonely Planet and everywhere in between.

When I reach the white awning above the shop window, I cautiously peer in. On display are giant cones covered in a rainbow of concentric circles, with rows of lemon yellow, turquoise blue, and pistachio green. And then there are the cakes, piled high with meringue and fresh raspberries. It’s a feast for the eyes, but at the moment I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach. I settle on a pain au chocolat and a pastry filed with buttercream and carmelized hazelnuts—both wildly successful choices!

Quite content, I make my way next to Gare Montparnasse to catch a train to Chartres. After I composter le billet in the yellow machine by the track, I settle in for an easy hour’s ride.

The gray spires of Chartres cathedral—curiously mismatched—dominate the skyline in town, drawing tourists like a magnet to the front doors of the church. I’m no sooner inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark, than I hear a familiar group of voices calling me from behind. It’s Terry and Steve and the kids, who I met on the Battlebus tour in Normandy. We all laugh and enjoy the serendipity of the moment. I mean, really, what are the chances of running into each other quite by accident in a country of 62 million people, even if the itineraries of American tourists are much the same?

Their departure a short time later leaves me on my own in the cathedral, and I begin to circle around with my neck craned high towards the windows. I’ve been drawn to medieval stained glass ever since a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum in London in the summer of 2006. I’ve seen fine examples at York Minster, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and even at the The Cloisters in New York City, but these do not disappoint. The mass of scaffolding in the center of the church does, but the windows are lovely. There are signs of the zodiac rendered in colored glass—a scorpion, bull, crab, and ram—as well as scenes depicting various tradesmen at work—masons and stone cutters, wheelwrights and furriers. All are details that reward careful inspection.

I had wanted to visit Chartres on a Friday, in particular, because of the cathedral’s famous labyrinth. On other days of the week it is covered by chairs, but on Fridays the chairs are removed to allow visitors to walk upon it, as pilgrims have done since the year 1200, either by foot or on their knees. According to the Malcolm Miller guidebook in the gift shop, it’s the oldest and best preserved of its kind from medieval France.

I’m going to walk it myself, but for now I’m watching others take their turn. An older British couple has drawn my eye, mainly because they’re moving at an unexpectedly fast pace and their voices are echoing rather loudly. In a race to the end, the man instructs his wife to go left while he goes right, but moments later he’s sure that he’s lost and retraces his steps.

I’m torn between impatience with the spectacle they’re creating and outright amusement. Someone really should take these folks by the arm and explain that it’s a L-A-B-Y-R-I-N-T-H, it’s not a maze. There are no trophies awarded to those who reach the center first, and for that matter, there is only one way in. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s a spiritual exercise intended for contemplation, and they’ve missed the point entirely.

Hoping for a different kind of experience, I begin my own walk slowly. I navigate the serpentine path and feel the unevenness of the marble beneath my feet, a channel worn away by centuries by repetitive motion. It has a subtle, calming effect, but it’s not exactly transcendental, in part because there are distractions all around me—a crowding of bodies, the sound of voices, the flash of cameras.

Afterwards, the ascent to the top of the tower brings some welcome air into my lungs. Halfway up, I meet a little girl no more than 5 years old. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt and a lavender beret on her adorable blond head, and she’s looking intently down at the stone supports that curve like ribs towards the belly of the cathedral. Her father asks if she knows what they’re called. “Of course,” she says, “flying buttresses.” When she looks up at the tower and at the stairs yet to be conquered, I lean in and ask her if she’s sure she can climb all the way. “Yes,” she says solemnly, because she has already climbed an even bigger tower in Geneva.

I end the afternoon by making a slow circle around the cathedral grounds, down the hill and through the town, stopping for a late lunch at Migeon. I order a chicken salad sandwich and point to a chocolate pastry in a glass case, but don’t much mind when through some act of miscommunication I end up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate instead.

Back in Paris, the night is young and I am splurging at the Opéra Garnier with a prime ticket to a ballet inspired by Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s titled, Proust ou les intermittences du coeur and it consists of a series of impressionistic tableaux that trace the author’s moods at various periods in his life, from times of great happiness to deep sorrow. Through my uncultivated eyes it seems disconnected and rather avant-garde, but the human body is a thing of beauty and great wonder, and I like the show very much. But even if I had not, the chance to sit in a chair of red velvet under a ceiling painted by Chagall, to see in the Palais Garnier the remains of La Belle Époque at its finest, that would be worth the price of admission on its own.

On the way back to the apartment, I stop to take a few pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine against the clear night sky. There is time enough yet to enjoy the “City of Lights,” but in the morning there will be rain.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rain, rain, rain.

I had planned to head to Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen this morning, a flea market on the northern edge of Paris, but the weather seems to be calling for some artful rearrangement of my itinerary. I think, why not go shopping?

I’ve been to Paris before, but never to the Galeries Lafayette. It’s a famous department store whose posters blanket the tile walls of every metro station in the city. My favorite is one that depicts a woman with an Eiffel Tower strapped to her head with a criss-crossing ribbon of red, white, and blue. The absurdity of it appeals to me somehow.

What seemed like a good idea back in my apartment strikes me as a terribly unimaginative one once I walk through the front doors. Every other tourist in town seems to have had the same burst of inspiration. The place is packed with sweaty bodies and dripping umbrellas.

I soon discover that the Galeries Lafayette sell what appear to be the exact same clothes as every other department store in the world, so it’s something of a disappointment. But the glass dome overhead, and the surrounding balconies that look as though they once rested in the Palais Garnier, are impressive and the city views from the rooftop terrace are lovely, too, even on a gray and dreary day. On the other hand, it amuses me to see that the shelves of the international food hall are well stocked with Oreos and Pepperidge Farm cookies. I suppose that to the French these are exotic international foods, but it baffles me why would anyone want to eat them when Gérard Mulot’s pastry shop is just a short walk across the Seine.

Still, here I am committing the same culinary sin. With little planning or forethought, I’ve just bought a sandwich to go, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water, with which I head back out into the rain.

When finding a dry place to eat turns into a monumental challenge, I end up sitting under the Pont de la Tournelle. Using the bridge for shelter, I open my poulet aux legumes croquants. It’s just a chicken sandwich with fresh vegetables on whole wheat bread, but the French label, along with the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, makes my pre-packaged lunch feel almost elegant.

For dessert I head to La Maison Berthillon on the nearby Île Saint-Louis for an expensive and shockingly small cone of peach and pear sorbet. I wander in and out of the shops the run the length of the island and buy what for me is the quintessential Parisian souvenir—a silk scarf in brilliant teal from Diwali, where racks upon racks of bright colors provide a welcome contrast to the gray outside.

Determined to stay indoors for now, I pull out my Paris Museum Pass, wade through the security line at the Palais de Justice, and make a repeat visit to Sainte-Chapelle. When I first visited in the summer of 2007, scaffolding filled the apse, blocking the windows entirely. Now the space is blessedly free of construction and it’s stunning—absolutely stunning, especially since I have a long lens on my Nikon D40 that allows me to zoom in for detail.

By the time I leave, the rain is coming to a reluctant stop. I hop on the metro at Cité and keep my fingers crossed all the way to Varenne because I would very much like to see the Rodin Museum and most of the sculptures are scattered about outside in various gardens, including those that are most famous: “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and the “Burghers of Calais.”

Thankfully, the weather stays at bay as I take a pleasant, if somewhat sodden, turn through the grounds, although I am a bit miffed to be shunted aside while looking at the statue of “Ugolino and his Children” in the ornamental pool behind the Hôtel Biron. A squadron of professional photographers has descended with a young model in tow, dressed in a bright plaid dress, and they want everyone else out of the way. They say I can come back later to complete my visit, but the golden dome of Les Invalides, rising behind the hedge to my left, has already caught my eye and it’s only 3 o’clock, so I decide to head there instead.

In the 17th century, the Hôtel des Invalides was intended as a home and hospital for old soldiers, but it’s best known today for the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, which rests grandly inside of not one, but six coffins, which are further housed in a stone sarcophagus directly under the chapel dome. On the marble floor, an inlaid wreath of laurel circles the base of the tomb, and the names of Napoleon’s greatest victories are incised in gold: Austerlitz, Rivoli, Pyramides, and more. The names are familiar to me, even though I know little of French military history. Today, Gare d’Austerlitz is a train station in Paris; I once stood on the Rue de Rivoli to watch the final laps of the Tour de France; and Pyramides is the name of a metro station not far from the Louvre. Napoleon lives on, bigger than life, although here in Les Invalides, the overall effect is so enormous that the Frommer’s guidebook can’t resist noting that it is “almost lampooning the smallness of the man.”

It’s late afternoon and by now I’ve had my fill of museums for the day. I rest for a bit on a bench and then take a slow stroll through an antiques market on Rue Cler and down through the tree-lined streets that radiate out from Les Invalides. In doing so, I’m reminded of the final pages of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s the scene where Newland Archer and his son Dallas come to visit Madame Olenska. Wharton, who knew Paris well, describes it this way:

“The day was fading into a soft sun-shot haze, pricked here and there by a yellow electric light, and passers were rare in the little square into which they had turned… It was a modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-coloured front. On one of the upper balconies, which hung well above the rounded tops of the horse-chestnuts in the square, the awnings were still lowered, as though the sun had just left it.”

Years have passed since their parting and Archer tries to imagine the life she has lived here without him. It is all fiction, I know, and yet standing here at the same time of day, looking up at the same streets, I find myself imagining it, too.

The light is fading fast by the time I make my way back on the metro to my temporary home near the Place de la Contrascarpe. I dine on coq au vin at Chez Robert on the tiny Rue du Pot de Fer, and then head to bed early, with Wharton’s melancholy vision of Paris still ringing in my ears.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My inadvertent tour of Paris train stations continues this morning with a trip to Gare de l‘Est. I’m heading off to Colmar, a small town in the Alsace region of France, near Strasbourg and the German border. It’s a long way away and a TGV high speed train is the only thing that makes covering such a distance possible as a day trip, but it also requires booking well in advance. Now that I’m here, I’m a bit skeptical of my original plans given the menacing sky overhead.

Colmar is a small city with some first rate art, including the Isenheim altarpiece at the Musée d’Unterlinden, and a sublime painting of the Virgin Mary in a rose bower by Martin Schongauer at the Dominican church. However, the prime attraction is really Colmar itself, billed as something of a storybook village with streets of colorful, half-timbered houses, the kind of place where Hansel and Gretel might feel at home. I think about all of this on the journey east and wonder what will happen if it rains. I suppose it will like a page out of Grimm’s fairy tales, which always were—let’s face it—pretty grim.

It’s just after 11 AM when the train pulls into Colmar station. From here, it’s about a 15 minute walk down Avenue de la République to the historic center of town, past a lovely park called the Place du Champs de Mars. I veer off to the right by an old-fashioned carousel to take a closer look at a statue at the center of an impressive fountain and find that it honors A.J. Bruat (which, quite frankly, means nothing to me), but it was crafted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the famous French sculptor who was born in Colmar and who is best known for having designed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

I walk a bit further, past where Avenue de la République becomes Rue Kleber and come to a small shaded square in front of the Musée d’Unterlinden. I’m looking forward to my visit there, but I’d rather stay outdoors for as long as I can before the rain comes, as surely it will.

I have a tourist map of the city with the route between major attractions highlighted in pink, so I follow it a short distance and stop in front of La Maison des Têtes. Built in 1609 for a local merchant, the fanciful façade is ornamented with more than a hundred disembodied heads. Some have menacing expressions, but most are humorous, including an ogre that looks remarkably like Shrek, and a court jester with the kind of floppy hat and jingle bells one might see at a Renaissance Fair.

The path dictated by the map takes me further along Rue des Boulangers, to the Dominican Church, where I stop to admire Schongauer’s Mary, painted in 1473. Holding the baby Jesus to her shoulder, she is surrounded by a trellis of red roses in which a variety of songbirds sit among the thorns—a robin, a sparrow, a warbler, a goldfinch. Two angels dressed in blue hover overhead with a crown of gold. The pamphlet I purchased in the gift shop says that it combines stylistically the best of Germanic and Flemish art into a work of “great force, strange charm, and intense emotion.” I’ve seen a quite a few medieval altarpieces through the years, nearly to the point of boredom when the same iconography is repeated time and time again, and yet here I stand utterly transfixed.

The route on my map continues, past the Collegiate church of Saint-Martin and the spectacular Maison Pfister, to the tanner’s district near Place de l’Ancienne Douane, and finally to a colorful cluster of houses on the river Lauch known as “La Petite Venise.” Colmar is indeed a charming place of gingerbread houses and wrought iron trade signs, like something lifted out the pages of a fairy tale, but the walk has brought into sharp relief a problem that I had not fully appreciated in all my months of planning. It’s a Sunday and nearly every shop is closed, including many restaurants.

I take a quick survey of my depleted options and decide to break for lunch at La Krutenau, where like everyone around me, I order the tarte flambée—an Alsatian dish made from a thin circle of bread dough covered by crème fraîche, bacon, and onions. It’s warm and tasty, the perfect antidote for a chilly day.

Afterwards, I retrace my steps in the spitting rain and spend the next two hours wandering the halls of the Musée d’Unterlinden, which is housed in a 13th century Dominican convent. Aside from the beauty of the architecture itself, which includes a lovely Gothic cloister, the museum has an impressive collection of medieval paintings and sculptures that represent the best of the Upper Rhine.

Their most famous work—the towering Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald—takes pride of place at one end of the convent’s chapel. It was painted in the early 16th century for the nearby monastery and hospital of St. Anthony, where monks treated the victims of skin disorders. To demonstrate God’s sympathy, Grünewald depicts Christ himself (in the lower panel) as suffering from the effects of ergotism, known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” a painful disease caused by the growth of fungus on wet grain.

Still, the overall effect provides more fright than comfort. The crucifixion scene is positively brutal, showing thorns that protrude from the flesh on Christ’s torso. In agony, his fingers stretch and arch in vain towards Heaven. As if those searing images were not enough to keep believers on the straight and narrow, a side panel titled “The Temptation of St. Anthony” shows a hoard of imaginary beasts—similar in whimsy to, but more far malicious than, those in Where the Wild Things Are—dragging the old saint by his white hair into the farthest reaches of Hell. It’s all a bit too much, really: “Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday,” as a priest and friend of Martin Scorsese once said of the director’s early films.

I’m relieved to end my visit on a more cheerful note, by walking through a gallery devoted to folk art. There are cradles and painted blanket chests, harmless paper dolls of Napoleonic soldiers, wood-carved characters in the setting of a jovial Alsatian inn, and a set of romantic 19th century oil paintings of Colmar that show the city streets looking much the same as today.

On my way out, I return to the front desk to retrieve the coat and umbrella I checked upon entering. When a woman hands them back to me, a security guard overhears me say “Merci, Madame” and he says “good French”! Surprised, I rock my hand back in forth in a 50/50 sign, giving myself more generous credit than I deserve. Then, moments later, when I buy a guidebook of the museum’s collections, the clerk behind the desk asks to make sure I want the English version. Given the sorry state of my high school French, this amuses me. Through my slim knowledge of European history, I know that the Alsace has been traded back and forth between France and Germany through the centuries, so perhaps the modern residents of Colmar have inherited a kind of linguistic confusion. They must have, if they think I speak French well!

Soon after I step back out onto the street, the skies let loose with the fury of Almighty God. Between the ferocious wind and the pounding rain, it really does feel biblical in an Old Testament, punishing kind of way. It’s the kind of weather Grünewald might have appreciated. The little train in the square in front of the museum has been abandoned by its conductor and a tall metal sign advertising the route nearly falls on top of me as I go skidding by in search of some dry haven. Alas, the tourist information office closed at 1 o’clock, so all I can do is flatten myself into a narrow doorway and hope for the best. I have a small travel umbrella with me, but its puny plastic skeleton would never survive a storm such as this.

As I wait for the worst of the rain to pass, I pull out my camera and use the screen on back to flip through the pictures I’ve taken so far. It’s been a gray and dreary day, and while I’ve fiddled with the white balance to compensate for the clouds, the results are not exactly what I’d hoped for. I begin to think about how I might creatively “enhance” them using Photoshop, wondering how hard it would be to fake a blue sky here and there—nothing too dramatic or dishonest, just a little artistic embellishment.

When the weather breaks at last, leaving puddles behind in the cobblestone streets, I look for a quick snack and settle on another regional specialty—a small kougelhopf, which is a raised cake made with almonds and raisins.  I notice a poster taped to the store window advertising a free concert at the Dominican church at 5:00 PM. Given the sodden weather and some time left before the TGV train back to Paris, it seems like an inviting idea.

The performers are from a boy’s choir called “Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-André de Colmar,” or the little singers of St. Andrew’s. Their voices range along the musical scale in proportion to their age—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—and blend well together in a program devoted to sacred hymns. Seeing them here in front of Schongauer’s altarpiece—his perfectly incandescent Virgin Mary surrounded by roses—has been an unexpected delight on a day that has been, until now, underwhelming.

A further surprise awaits me when I’m forced to slip out early to catch my train—a nearly cloudless blue sky for as far as the eye can see. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Nervously, I check my watch and decide to make one last, mad dash through town, trying to improve upon the pictures I took earlier. By the time I make it all the way back to the station to catch the 6:42 train back to Paris, I’m exhausted and it’s pouring rain again. By the time we reach Strasbourg a half hour later, the sun is shining. It’s been a very strange day.

It’s nearly dark when my train pulls into Gare de l’Est. On the metro back to Place Monge, there’s a street singer making rounds through the cars, inexplicably singing Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. I toss him a Euro and think of all my years of solo travel, which have been filled with great joy, but also moments of genuine frustration.

Maybe I should make it my theme song:

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ah, the solace one finds in food, particularly chocolate.

Mother Nature teased me cruelly this morning. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky when I awoke at 7:30 AM. By the time I left my apartment on Rue Rollin an hour later, it was raining miserably. Again.

With all my obsessive attention to the weather, I’m beginning to feel quite British, which means that I’m also starting to embrace their “characteristic pessimism.”  That’s not good.

In an effort to pull myself out of a glum mood, it occurs to me that the ideal remedy for a damp and chilly day in Paris is a long breakfast at Angelina’s tea rooms on the Rue de Rivoli. I splurge on the whole deal—eggs, fruit, croissants, juice, and of course, their signature Chocolat l’Africain with Chantilly cream. It’s all outrageously expensive, but well worth it considering that it’s the most divine hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I tell the waiter this and he nods politely, although he seems thoroughly bored and unimpressed by my enthusiasm. He must hear this all the time.

I resolve to spend the better part of the day warm and dry inside the Musée du Louvre. I visited the museum twice during my first trip to Paris in the summer of 2007, but saw little more than the highlights, including “Winged Victory” and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The Louvre houses more than 35,000 works of art, displayed in over 600,000 square feet of gallery space. Surely, there is a bit more to see!

I enter down through I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, flash my Paris Museum Pass at the gate, and rent one of the new multimedia guides to the collection. Since I’m heading to Amsterdam later this week, I decide to start with the Dutch and Flemish paintings on the second floor. Today, there are artists and their easels scattered about through the rooms. They’re there to copy the Old Masters, as others have done for centuries. Some are quite talented, and brave too, to raise a brush in salute before the work of Peter Paul Rubens, not to mention the curious eyes of passers-by.

I explore miles of galleries devoted to tapestries, medieval decorative arts, and the Italian Renaissance—and even a special exhibit on the sculpture of early altarpieces—before revisiting the mob that gathers, as always, in front of the “Mona Lisa.” It’s a curious magnet, even in a museum this large and this diverse. That the art itself is small and rather bland matters little when the image is so familiar. Digital cameras in hand, a couple sporting matching tie dyed shirts with yellow smiley faces press into position. Nearby are a husband and wife wearing pink polo shirts, black fleece vests, and the same gray cropped pants. I find the unexpected (and androgynous) symmetry rather comical, and think of what Miss Lavish says to Lucy in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “Look at their figures! They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty to me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.” Naughty indeed, as I’m no great fashion plate or credentialed connoisseur of the arts myself.

By late afternoon, I stumble out of the Louvre a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the experience, and head for the open air of Trocadéro. From here, looking east, there’s an unrivaled view of the Eiffel Tower, with the École Militaire framed between its massive iron legs. It’s a sprawling view, but the sky overhead is making me grasp once again for some as-yet-unused synonym for the words “gray” and “dreary.” Nothing comes to mind. Still, tourists are gathered snapping pictures, several holding up their hands, a gesture that seems intended either to catch the rain or to shrug it off with a good-natured c’est la vie.

For a while, I stand back and watch, challenging myself to compose as many pictures as I can of people with their umbrellas, hoping in vain for a spash of color as visually striking as in the movie “The Red Balloon,” but the parade of black and white bumbershoots before me looks as monochromatic as the landscape. Really, I’m beginning to lose patience with that whole cliché that says “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

I ride the metro back to my apartment on the Left Bank, but with a detour through the Marais for an early dinner at L’As du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers. I’m hungry and back to thinking about the solace of food. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall kind of place, with more grit than charm, but the falafels are every bit as good as I’d heard.

And the homemade lemonade?  Well, that’s just say it’s sweetly ironic!

I spend the evening quietly, doing some laundry and posting pictures to Flickr, but later I make a short walk around the corner to the Rue Mouffetard for a dish of gelato from Amorino’s. It’s chocolate, of course, the perfect bookend to the day.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

With this morning’s mist, the streets of Paris have the soft focus of a Camille Pissarro painting, which I suppose is apt since I plan to visit the Musée d’Orsay later in the day, a museum best known for its collection of 19th century Impressionist art. But for now my priority is an antiques fair that’s currently underway in the elegant neighborhood of Saint-German-des-Prés. When a quick look at a street map shows me that it’s just a few blocks west of Gérard Mulot’s decadent pâtisserie, I add that to my list as well. Tomorrow I leave for Belgium, and I’ve awakened with a renewed commitment to make the most of the time I have left in the city, whether the weather cooperates or not.

On a bench in front the church of Saint-Sulpice, I begin an impromptu picnic with a buttery croque monsieur aux courgettes, which is a sandwich on grilled toast made with ham, cheese and paper thin slices of zucchini, and end with a Palerme pastry, a moist pistachio cake ringed by triangles of dark chocolate. I really will miss Mr. Mulot.

The antiques dealers won’t open their booths until 11 AM, so I take time to see the church first. Much of the exterior is still covered in scaffolding, as it was two years ago, but the inside is ornate, dark, and pleasantly quiet. Saint-Sulpice is best known for two features: a massive pipe organ, and an understated obelisk mounted against the wall, and from which a brass line extends, inset into the marble floor. It’s a gnomon, an astronomical device that Dan Brown erroneously refers to as a “rose line” in his novel The Da Vinci Code. The hoopla over the book and the movie seems to have passed, though, because there are few tourists milling about, and none that seem remotely interested in the Priory of Sion or the Holy Grail.

It’s raining lightly when I step back outside, but the antiques market is slowly coming to life under a temporary collection of open tents. The things I see are beautiful, but mostly well outside of my price range, including a captivating oil-on-board portrait of a woman in green that looks like a character in a Jane Austen novel. I’m determined to find something, but it takes several rounds until I do, mainly because the showers passing overhead are forcing the dealers to cover and then uncover their wares time and time again. There is a woman doing her best to push the water off the sidewalks with a broom, but it seems like a losing battle. In the end, I negotiate a discount on a trio of items with a sweet woman who doesn’t speak English, by pointing and jotting down numbers on the back of an envelope. I walk away happy with a silver pocket watch, a gold bar pin, and a stunning garnet and pearl lavalier. For the first time in days, I’ve truly enjoyed myself.

The Pierre Hermé pâtisserie is just around the corner at 72 Rue Bonaparte, so I jump at the chance to try a few unusual flavors of macarons—wasabi and grapefruit, and olive oil and vanilla—both so light and fresh they melt in my mouth.

I walk from the pastry shop north to the banks of the Seine, then turn west towards the Musée d’Orsay. I’ve been to the museum before, but a new exhibit has prompted me to return. It’s called “Voir l’Italie et Mourir,” which translates (rather morosely) into the phrase “See Italy and Die.” In the context of The Grand Tour, it displays Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from 19th century. Its effect on my mood is dispiriting and unexpected, because here I am in Paris—one of the most wonderful cities in the world—and all the while I find myself heartsick for Italy, wishing I was there basking in the sun.

Still, by the time I leave, the weather is starting to break. It’s only 4 o’clock, so I head to Montmartre for the view and a relaxing end to the day, and smile when I see a picture of Barack Obama stenciled onto the metal wall of the elevator at the Abbesses metro station. I circle by the artist’s booths in Place du Tertre and wander the back streets surrounding Sacré-Cœur until my legs tire, then ride the little tourist train down the hill to Pigalle, past an elderly couple in the street playing a lively folk tune on a violin and accordion.

To celebrate my final night in Paris, I’ve planned to attend a classical music concert at Notre Dame Cathedral, and even dress for the occasion by wearing the new silk scarf I bought on the Île Saint-Louis. There is a choir performing Monteverdi’s “Vespers to the Virgin,” but by the time they start to sing it’s after 8:30 PM and exhaustion is starting to set in. Either the music is lumbering and fuzzy, or my brain is. I’m not quite sure which, but after watching a flood of people sneak out the back midway through, I suspect it’s a little of both. Feeling guilty, I do the same, but relish the rush of cool air on my face when I reach the door.

It’s after 10 PM when I settle down to supper and order a chicken club at Le Depart Saint-Michel. I pull out a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I bought days ago at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop just around the corner. The street lights are dimmed by the red awning overhead, and the night air has chilled enough to warrant the use of an outdoor heater, but I’m in the mood to sit awhile and read.

In the 1920s, Hemingway and his wife lived for a time on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, not far from the apartment I’ve rented these last nine days, and he spent much of his time sitting at cafés such as this, likely with his chair facing out, watching the world go by. The title of his memoirs comes from this famous line: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

In spite of that sentiment, it’s actually a deeply melancholic book, and while I read it once long ago, tonight I seem to appreciate it more, especially when he describes how “the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street.” This may be the middle of June, but my Paris has been unseasonable indeed.

I read on, skimming passages here and there, until I reach the final page: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it.”

Hemingway is right, of course. And I will come back someday, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I’m up early this morning for a final breakfast at Café Delmas. I gather up my things and pull my suitcase behind me across the cobblestones, past Hemingway’s apartment on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, down the Rue Mouffetard to Place Monge.

I ride to Gare du Nord in the back seat of a cab driven by a man I quickly dub “Monsieur Lazy Pants.” He is tall and wiry with close cut hair and faded jeans and he shrugs as he explains how he likes to come to the Place Monge taxi stand because there’s usually no one there. Let’s just say he’s not France’s most enterprising driver. His English consists almost entirely of “I am sorry, but I need it,” a phrase that he applies liberally to both coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes, despite a prominent no-smoking sign on the inside window of the car. Really, it’s a miracle that I arrive on time to catch the Thalys train to Belgium.

As we pull out of the station, I take a final look back at the city, which is—at last—bathed in sunlight. It’s a shame, truly, because the weather report is calling for persistent rain in Bruges. Storm clouds are following me everywhere I go.

The journey to Brussels, and then on to Bruges, is an easy one, but most of the day is filled with minor details—departure boards and waiting rooms. Nevertheless, it gives me the chance to recharge after a hectic schedule in France, both in and out of Paris.

By 1:30 I’ve arrived at the Hotel Patritius, a small family-run place on a street named Riddersstraat, a name crowded with so many redundant letters I feel like I’m stuttering when I read it out loud for the cab driver.

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. As I understand it, English is also widely spoken, especially in tourist meccas like Bruges. My guidebook advises me to say goeiedag in Dutch, but I fear mispronouncing that (with good reason), so I decide to approach the woman at the front desk of the hotel with a cheery bon jour, followed by hello, hoping to cover a sufficient number of bases. The strategy doesn’t work. She bristles visibly, sighs, then explains in English that Belgians in the Flemish north do not speak French. Ever. I hang my head in shame, all the way up the stairs to my room.

It’s a nice room, with lovely tall ceilings, but it’s a bit strange, too. The bathroom has a giant picture window to the right of the tub which looks out onto the room itself. I suppose it’s there to let in natural light, and I am traveling solo after all, but still I feel oddly exposed, and opt to pull down the shade.

By the time I unpack and make my way back downstairs, the woman at the front desk has been replaced by a kinder, gentler man. He gives me a map of the city and a suggestion for lunch. It’s a large map on thin paper and it folds into so small a rectangle that opening and closely it successfully feels like a frustrating lesson in Origami. It’s also impractical to use on a rainy day while holding an umbrella. On my way to Souffleur, a gust of wet wind catches it and I struggle to fold it back into shape, but I find my destination at last and enjoy a warm bacon salad with croutons, pine nuts, goat cheese, and apple.

Afterwards, I venture out into the city proper, to the Burg and the Grote Markt and the shops in between. It’s raining steadily now and when I reach the bridge where Dijver meets Rozenhoedkaai, I snap a picture of the belfry rising from the mist with a canal boat passing underneath, filled to the brim with day trippers huddled beneath their umbrellas. It’s a sorry sight.

It’s at some point after this that I do what I hoped never to do. I resort to using the little rain bonnet stashed away in my camera bag. I’m becoming my grandmother. Can it get much worse?

Maybe it can. For a moment, I actually think it’s snowing down near Minnewater when I see the white down feathers on the ground from all the swans.

It’s time for the salvation of chocolate. I’m beginning to feel like Monsieur Lazy Pants. I’m sorry, but I need it. Preemptive research tells me that The Chocolate Line is an excellent destination, so I make haste and buy a small bag full of some truly unusual flavors, including lavender and lemongrass. The young woman behind the counter clearly thinks I look ridiculous in a rain bonnet, but I can’t say that I blame her. At least she does her best to hide a laugh.

Disconsolate, I trudge on to the Begijnhof, a convent for Benedictine nuns. It’s a quiet place, where all I can hear are the raindrops falling onto a canopy of green leaves. The trees are all slanted in one direction, as if Bruges is forced to endure this kind of weather all the time.

Quite by accident—or rather serendipity—I stumble across a small church with an open door. The nuns are preparing to sing vespers in Gregorian chant. I enter cautiously at first, not sure if I’ll be welcome, but an ancient woman with a kindly face smiles and motions for me to come forward and sit. I do, and allow the music to wash over me.

After a cozy dinner of chicken souvlaki at The Olive Tree, I grab my tripod and head out into the rain to take some night shots, intending to make the most of the wet reflections on the cobblestone streets. As I stand in the center of the Grote Markt, soaking wet, it occurs to me that one year ago today, I was in Venice sitting under the stars, sipping a Bellini in St. Mark’s Square.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy since that exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and I’ve really got to stop.

I’m so distracted by both the past and the present that it doesn’t yet register that the expensive zoom lens on my camera isn’t focusing properly, but it will.

In the morning, it will.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The rain is starting to take its toll, not just on my spirits and on my coat, which I’ve worn so often in so much foul weather that it’s starting to accumulate some serious grime, but now on my camera—my wonderful Nikon D40, which has been a trusted companion these past three years. I use a long 18-200mm lens, which allows me to shoot everything from a wide angle to a telephoto, but all of the sudden it’s not working at any focal length past about 55mm, which is roughly what can be seen with the naked eye. Even on manual, the pictures I take using the zoom are blurred beyond use. Whether the weather is to blame, or some random mechanical fault, is anyone’s guess.

Bruges is a stunningly beautiful city, even in the rain—a UNESCO World Heritage site—so I’m genuinely relieved to discover that I can still take pictures, as long as I back the lens off and shoot everything from a distance. It’ll have to do.

From the 13th through the 15th centuries, Bruges was a city of wealth and prominence, but with the silting up of the nearby river, trade eventually moved elsewhere and it became a literal backwater that today appears frozen in time. The remnants of its medieval art and architecture are everywhere, in the stepped gables of the buildings that line the Grote Markt, and in the portraits of Hans Memling and others from the school of Flemish primitives. Some of the atmosphere is reproduced—the lacy neo-Gothic spires of the Provinciaal Hof date only to the late 19th century, for instance—but it hardly matters. Bruges is as cute and cute can be, and its place in history means that it has museums ample enough to occupy a rainy day well.

I start at the Groeninge Museum, where there’s a special exhibit entitled “Charles the Bold: The Splendour of Burgundy, 1433-1477.” Charles the Bold was the son of Philip the Good and the grandson of John the Fearless. His daughter Mary had a son known as Philip the Handsome. As I listen to the narrator on the audio guide explain the family’s history and their connection to the royal houses of Europe, somehow I can’t help but think of Joe the Plumber.

The objects on display are splendid indeed, including millefleurs tapestries, suits of armor, a man’s tunic made from scarlet silk, and a pair of tiny knights mounted on horseback, intended as jousting toys. There is also a portrait of Charles the Bold wearing a heavy chain and pendant from the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1420 by Philip the Good, then Duke of Burgundy. I recognize it immediately, not because of any superior knowledge I might have of the Low Countries and their history, but because I saw a version made of candy on display in the store window of The Chocolate Line yesterday afternoon.

In the courtyard next door, I enter the Gruuthuse Museum, which features a small but fascinating collection of medieval furnishings that once belonged to a Flemish nobleman who was so wealthy that he had a private balcony installed overlooking the altar of the adjacent Church of Our Lady, then I move on to the church itself. Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, as it’s known in Dutch, contains the tomb of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary, but also a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Created around 1504, it’s said to be the only work by the artist to have left Italy during his lifetime.

My last major stop for now is just across the street at the Memling Museum, which is set within a hodgepodge complex of buildings that once made up the medieval hospital of St. John’s. Among Hans Memling’s works here are the Shrine of St. Ursula, a small painted box intended to house the relics of the saint, and the far larger St. John’s Altarpiece, which includes surrealistic scenes of the Apocalypse as told by St. John the Evangelist.

Over a plate of Belgian frites with mayonnaise at Brasserie Mozarthuys, I sit and leaf through some of the postcards and museum guidebooks I bought. My head is spinning, but it’s been a wonderful day. I stop by Dumon for some chocolate, and figure that between the carbohydrates and the sugar I should have enough energy to withstand the climb to the top of the belfry.

It’s a beautiful view, out across a sea of pointed gables and red roofs. I try not to look down, though, because it reminds me of a rather gory scene from the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges” that I would rather forget.

It’s getting late, but the sky has cleared off so thoroughly and unexpectedly that I grab the opportunity to go for a canal boat ride before dinner. I sit back and relax, enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, and the fact my umbrella is now stowed away in my bag rather than propped over my head.

I have a fine meal at Bistro de Pompe—Flemish asparagus, veal with mashed potatoes, and for dessert, a bowl of fresh strawberries with mint and orange. Then I walk back to the little corner on Rozenhoedkaai that gives such a glorious view of the belfry, right at an elbow in the River Dijver. I set up my camera and tripod and wait for the sky to fade and the floodlights to come on. When the perfect pair of swans floats to the center of the frame just as I click the shutter, I think perhaps that my luck is changing at last.

Friday, June 12, 2009

It’s just after nine when I finish breakfast at the Hotel Patritius and venture cautiously outside.  Much to my surprise and relief, it’s a beautiful morning in Bruges.  The sky is blue under a canopy of white clouds, and the effect of sunshine on my mood after five consecutive days of rain is so pronounced that I can feel an actual spring in my step.  Soon, the tour buses will arrive and the crowds they bring will devour the city like a hoard of locusts, but for now there is magic in the quiet medieval streets. 

I turn right at the end of Riddersstraat and walk past the Burg to the Markt, before heading left down Wollestraat, popping in and out of small shops along the way. When I reach Dijver, I stroll along the canal, where horses and buggies are already at work, and then zig zag past the Church of Our Lady and St. John’s Hospital to Mariastraat, where a display of colorful pashminas catches my eye fluttering in the breeze. With the help of a eager clerk at Memlinck, I try on several before choosing one that is woven in deep autumnal colors.  She frowns, disappointed, and says it makes me look sad, but all-in-all I think it suits me well.  Next, at Atelier Galerie Kasper, I buy a small ceramic plaque depicting a timeless view of Bruges—the shaded Minnewater, complete with swans, and the entrance to the Begjinhof.  By the time I wind my down through the park and out into the ring of traffic that surrounds the city to the train station, it’s past 11. I still plan on taking a day trip to Ghent, but I’m in no particular hurry to get there. 

The journey to Gent-Sint-Pieters station is an easy half an hour.  At the ticket window, I buy a day pass for the trams and then head to the Korenmarkt stop in the historic center of town.  It’s midday by the time I reach the banks of the river Lieve, which is lined on either side by the Graslei and the Korenlei, two of Ghent’s most picturesque streets, and people are basking there in the sun and chatting happily at sidewalk cafés.  In the distance, I can see the flags and stone turrets of the Gravensteen rising above the gabled buildings that surround it and since I’m not yet hungry for lunch I decide to make that my first stop. 

Gravensteen is a Dutch word that means “The Castle of the Counts.”  The current fortress and its moat date from the 12th century, although some of the remains are earlier still.  It’s a massive complex and one that is not uninteresting—but let’s be honest—it’s no Tower of London.  For me, what’s most memorable is not the structure itself, but the truly odd multimedia guide that’s thrust into my hands as I enter.  It seems to consist entirely of poorly scripted videos that act out various fictional scenes in the history of the castle.  It’s part cheesy soap opera, part low-rent episode of “The Tudors.”  Or, are those one and the same?  I’m still laughing about it later at lunch, over a bowl of tandorri chicken salad with linguini at Exki

Afterwards, I climb to the top of the Belfort en Lakenhalle for a commanding view of the city, and then head into the dim light of St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  Given how massive it looked from the top of the belfry, the interior seems oddly small and plain at first, until I realize that much of it has been cordoned off for restoration work.  Fortunately, the altarpiece that inspired my entire visit to Ghent is still on view in a crowded chapel at the rear of the church. 

I’ve come to see the beautiful and mysterious “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a polyptych completed in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.  Stolen at one point by French revolutionaries, it was recovered and then pawned and its panels cut lengthwise.  Following World War I, it was returned to Belgium as part of the war reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, but in 1934, one of the twenty-four scenes, known as the “Just Judges” was snatched by art thieves, held for ransom, and never recovered.  In a tale worthy of Dan Brown, some believe it was because it contained a coded message relating to the Holy Grail.  Then, less than a decade later, the rest of the work was looted by the Nazis and hidden deep in a salt mine near Salzburg, Austria, where it remained until it was recovered by U.S. troops and returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral once more.  I stare at the work, transfixed, as its sordid history runs through my brain, and find myself amazed at its survival and at how luminous its colors remain.  It has been worth the trip to Ghent and more.

It’s after 4:00 PM by the time I catch the tram back to the station.  I check the departures board and in a rush jump onboard the wrong train.  I squint out the window and start to panic when I realize that I’m heading to Antwerp, not back to Bruges.  A kindly conductor smiles calmly and tells me to get off at the next stop, Gent-Dampoort, and retrace my steps.  “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’ll get there in the end.”  I like that sentiment.  And he’s right, too.

By the time I reach Bruges and wander up through the park, the day trippers have retreated to their tour buses and disappeared.  The streets are serene and the swans in front of the Begjinhof are lounging peacefully at the edge of the Minnewater.  The view is so sublime, and the slant of sun coming in through the trees so inviting, that I grab an outdoor table at Maximiliaan Van Oostenrijk and order a fine supper—a bowl of soup, followed by a plate of waterzooi du poulet, a creamy chicken stew which translates roughly into the phrase “watery mess.” 

Gradually, I fall into causal conversation with the couple sitting next to me, and they offer to buy me a cup of tea.  They both live and work in Bruges, and the woman owns a jewelry shop nearby, one I had admired while shopping earlier in the day.  We talk about politics, fashion, and travel, about the Belgians’ lingering resentment towards the Germans for their atrocities during the war, and their hopes for President Obama and the Americans.  We talk for a long while, while their golden retriever naps quietly at our feet, her back leg stitched and bandaged following a recent accident.  When at last we stand to leave, and they gently pick up the dog and pull her home in a small red wagon, I know that I will leave Bruges with the sweetest of memories, not all of which are about the chocolate.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

I am traveling in style this morning, on a 1st ticket from Brussels to Amsterdam, an opportune result of booking early with Thalys online. I settle into an extra wide seat, log in to the free wifi onboard, and await any other unexpected and delightful amenities that might come my way.

To my initial chagrin, however, there is a group of loud Australians just across the aisle. There are four of them in facing seats and on the table between there are countless miniature bottles of alcohol.

So, they’re clearly drunk Australians. Great.

One of them pulls out a laptop to make a video call on Skype to a friend back home, but it doesn’t seem to work well. Yelling into the microphone, he says: “You’re frozen, Bill. Gee, you don’t look good frozen.” They are far too rowdy and obnoxious for their age, and yet against my better judgment I find that I’m actually beginning to like these guys. That is, until the conductor makes a sudden interruption in Antwerp. I sit anxiously through the trilingual announcement, only to discover amidst a clamor of angry voices and heaving suitcases that we’ve all been ordered off the train.

Over the past few years, I’ve been to France and Italy, all the while speaking very little French and Italian. My strategy has been a practical one. It is to concentrate on the essentials, to know the polite words that lubricate the gears of travel in a foreign land. Bon jour and buon giorno. S’il vous plait and per favore. Merci, madame and grazie, signore. For this trip, I listened to and rehearsed the basics in Dutch. Goeiedag, alstublieft, and dank u wel. But nothing has prepared me for this. I am drowning in a language I do not understand, hoping for an explanation, and straining to follow the complicated instructions I’ve been given.

Here is what I am able to piece together: There is a signal problem on the track ahead. The high-speed Thalys train I was on is scheduled to return to Paris later in the day, and in fear it will be late, it has been sent back to accommodate other passengers at our expense. Abandoned on a platform in Antwerp, we are given a set of options. We can wait here for a slower, regional train that will continue to Amsterdam if and when the problem on the track is resolved. Or, there is a train on Platform 6 leaving immediately that will take us to Kapellen, or Kessel, or some other town with a K-sound—I’m beginning to lose a grip on the details. From there we can catch a bus to Essen, and then yet another train to Amsterdam.

The mutinous passengers around me scatter, and for a moment I hesitate, feeling the weight of solo travel more than I ever have before. I decide to stay put and hope for the best. By now it’s well past lunch, and my stomach is growling, but it’s not clear when the train will move, so I can’t chance walking away to grab a sandwich. Nor is there food available onboard. When we depart at last, that much becomes clear. The 1st class ticket I purchased on a high-speed train has been converted into a slow and rather dirty means of transport.

I think again about the kind conductor I met outside of Ghent. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll get there in the end.” I suppose it’s still true, but at the moment I can’t seem to rally my mood beyond a limited stoicism.

I do, in fact, get there in the end, but a bit worse for wear and definitely hungry. It’s 5:30 PM by the time we arrive at Amsterdam Centraal Station and I haven’t eaten since breakfast. The journey from Brussels was to have taken an easy two and a half hours, but it was a grueling five and a half in the end.

I take a cab to The Toren, a charming hotel that faces the Keizersgracht canal, and rush through check-in with the hope of begging someone at the Anne Frank House to let me in. Weeks ago, I had made a reservation online for 4:30 PM, thinking I had two hours of leeway, but my appointment time has come and gone and the fine print on my confirmation e-mail warns that my purchase is non-transferrable and non-refundable.

I rush around the corner to find that the line to buy tickets is still outrageously long at this late hour, stretching down the street towards Westerkerk, but I enter through a fast-lane door instead and present my expired reservation to the clerk, ready and almost eager to unburden myself of the day’s events. She glances down, then up at my face, and seems to grasp all that I feel.

And then she smiles.

It’s not a problem, she says. I can go straight in. She hopes I enjoy my visit.

There is a song by Joe Purdy that I like called “I’ve Been to Holland.” With a driving beat, he sings:

I don’t speak the language,
And all of the anguish,
It causes me to ask twice.
I don’t know much,
But know that I love the Dutch,
‘Cause they don’t have to try to be nice.

I exhale then, and feel the tension of the day melt away. In the mad rush here, I’ve hardly had the time register my surroundings. It occurs to me that I’ve been to Holland now, too, and nice can’t begin to describe it.

My visit through the Anne Frank house is all I had hoped it would be, and the gravity of the surroundings soon sets my mind straight on the absurdity of the day’s frustrations. The bookcase hiding the staircase to the Secret Annex is still there, as are the magazine clippings Anne glued to the wall in her room, including a photo of a young Princess Elizabeth of England. On the wall of the dining room there is a map of Normandy that Otto Frank used to track the advance of Allied troops. I stop and think about my visit to Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery and am struck by the sad end of that chain of events for Anne and her family, the van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer. It was help that never came. Following their betrayal and arrest in August 1944, all but Otto died at the hands of the Nazis. Anne herself succumbed to typhoid at Bergen-Belsen, within days of the death of her sister Margot, and just weeks before the camp was liberated by the Allies at last.

I stare at Anne’s diary with its red gingham cover and tiny Dutch script, then at a quotation on the wall:

Perhaps it had to be that this one Anne Frank moves us more than all the other countless victims whose names remain unknown. If we had to share, and could share, the suffering of each one of them, we should be unable to go on living.

When I make my way back out onto the street, I find that the night has grown pleasantly cool. I settle on a causal dinner at De Prins, a traditional brown café just down the street on the Prinsengracht canal, where I feast on an Indian wrap made with chicken, lentils, spinach, cumin, madras curry, cashew nuts, and mint yoghurt.

By the time I leave, the street lights are starting to reflect into the waters of the canal and small bulbs are springing to life along the archways of the city’s bridges. Amsterdam is beautiful at night, and in spite of all, I am glad I came.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Well now, I might just write Joe Purdy a letter this morning to inform him that not all Dutch people are nice.  I need to purchase a tram ticket and on a Sunday morning can’t find either a tourist information office or a local market that’s open for business.  At the Hotel Toren, however, they tell me that I can buy a ticket from the driver onboard, so that’s what I set out to do. But as luck would have it, the man I stumble upon doesn’t like it one little bit.  In fact, he is so disgruntled by my neophyte behavior that he barks at me to stand aside while others board, which gives him ample opportunity to mock me in front of all of the other passengers. At least they have the courtesy to look away.

The incident rattles me and makes me angry, but I make matters worse for myself by jumping off the tram too early.  So here I am, quite disoriented, somewhere near Leidseplein, not sure which way to turn to get to the Rijksmuseum, and the pounding rain surely isn’t helping matters. 

Amsterdam is a handsome city—it really is—but it doesn’t seem to welcome pedestrian traffic.  Cars and buses are buzzing about, trams lines are intersecting at odds angles under a spider web of electric wire, and then there are the bicycles. Bicycles everywhere, in the streets ignoring traffic signals, and on the sidewalks evading the traffic in the streets.  I haven’t felt this uneasy about stepping off a curb since I tried to cross Piazza Venezia in Rome.  I have become the hunted, dependent for survival on the stereotypical niceness of a nation. 

My bucolic visions of Holland have long included tulips and windmills.  Who knew their citizens also had a suicidal instinct?

By now, I’ve fully embraced the spirit of “getting there in the end.”  I find a small patch of earth that seems to be blessedly free of any vehicle’s path. I hoist up the umbrella, unfold the map, and with calm efficiency reroute myself according to the morning’s demands.

When I enter the Rijksmuseum at last, ticket in hand, I consider it a small victory in my ongoing battle against the fates.  And it really is.  Granted, the vast majority of the museum is closed for a multi-year renovation, but the highlights of the collection have been condensed into the Philips Wing in an exhibit simply titled “The Masterpieces.”  There may be maniacal tram drivers and a pelting rain outside, but here is some of the finest and most jolly art of the Dutch Golden Age, and the sight of it lifts my mood at once.  There is a smiling couple painted in vigorous brush strokes by Frans Hals, Rembrandt’s mammoth “The Night Watch,” and a trio of small, intimate portraits by Vermeer.  I may have spent much of my time on this trip missing Italy, but frankly, when it comes to art I prefer this subject matter to a constant stream of “Annunciations” and “Last Judgments.”

The weather outside is still quite nasty, so afterwards I head to the Van Gogh Museum nearby, where I grab a salami sandwich and an almond cookie at their cafeteria before heading in to the exhibits.  I also pay a few extra Euros for the audio guide.  Before long, I am so immersed in the visual and the auditory experience they provide, that I’ve lost all track of the time.  This may just be my favorite museum ever.

Van Gogh’s paintings are presented chronologically, beginning in the 1880s with rather somber works, like “The Potato Eaters.”  Next comes Paris and Arles, then Saint-Rémy, with its swirling brushstrokes, brilliant yellows and cobalt skies.  And finally, there is Auvers, where “Wheatfield with Crows,” executed in the last week’s of Van Gogh’s life, lead the eye down a solitary path under an angry sky, deep into the world in which he shot himself.  Paired with narration from the artist’s letters to his brother Theo, it’s a moving and wholly satisfying experience.

By late afternoon, the sky is starting to clear, and I am grateful to have a pleasant opportunity to wander through Amsterdam’s canal belt.  I stop to admire the “Seven Countries” houses, built in 1894 to showcase the architectural styles of Europe—one townhouse has an onion dome from Russia, while another looks like a Venetian palazzo—then I walk along the floating flower market on the Singel Canal to admire the tulips, and across to a fine view of the Zuiderkerk before heading back. 

The clerk at my hotel recommends De Luwte for dinner, a fine choice just around the corner from The Toren, and there I enjoy a guinea fowl with fresh herbs, wrapped in pancetta. 

Afterwards, I set to walking again because the sky is clear and because Amsterdam is just so very lovely at night, with the fairy lights on its bridges reflecting like strands of pearls into the water below.

Monday, June 15, 2009

When I look out the window of my hotel room this morning, I see a sky that has once again surrendered to a spitting rain. I don’t have any energy left for surprise or disappointment. I’ve planned all along to visit Delft today, and to Delft I will go. For the sake of drama, I might as well add “come Hell or high water,” but I fear tempting both, especially since we are teetering on the edge of the latter already.

Keen to avoid the city trams, I opt to walk to Centraal Station, a massive railway hub. Its elegant brick exterior and Dutch gables make it look remarkably like the Rijksmuseum, which makes sense since both were designed by the same architect in the late-19th century. It reminds of a more elegant time, when travel was an occasion and not just a logistical complication.

The ride to Delft is an easy one and though I arrive late in the morning, the streets are virtually deserted and the shops mainly closed. Between the quiet and the gray fog that has descended, the entire town has an air of mystery about it that I quite like. I wander along the canals towards the market square, stopping along the way in amusement at the names the Dutch give to their streets. There is Poppesteeg and Nickersteeg, Minderbroer and Boterbrug. When I turn onto Hippolytusbuurt, in my mind’s eye I create an image of a portly hippopotamus holding an umbrella, like some whimsical character in a Dr. Seuss story.

Delft is best known for two things: blue and white pottery, and the artist Johannes Vermeer. I spot a Royal Delftware shop facing the Markt, with a row of decorative tiles above the door and an assortment of vases on the window sill, but shopping can wait. I decide to head first to the Vermeer Center nearby.

In truth, there’s probably not enough here to justify the €7 entrance fee. Vermeer was one of the great painters of the Dutch Golden Age, but few of his paintings survive, and of those, none are in Delft. Instead, the displays include interactive media and reproductions of all 34 of his known works, as well as a reconstruction of his studio where visitors can pose among the props he used time and again in his paintings. It’s clever, but not worth more than a short visit.

From here, I walk to the Oude Kerk, with its leaning tower, to see Vermeer’s grave, and then up to the Molen de Roos, a windmill built in the early-18th century. I circle back to the Markt for lunch at a café dubbed the Willem van Oranje, and then visit the Nieuwe Kerk to see the funerary monument to the real Prince William of Orange.

Perhaps it’s a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, or the decline of religious belief in the Netherlands more recently, but I find that I don’t like Dutch churches very much. They strike me as rather cold and bare. But the experience does remind me of a 17th century painting of the Oude Kerk by Emanuel de Witte that I saw recently at the Met in New York. The tag on the wall beside the picture was amusing because it seemed incongruous to the scene itself. Someone—probably a misguided art historian—had written about the “spiritual environment” and the “intangible qualities” of “space, light, and mood,” that were reminiscent of Vermeer. Yet Witte had clearly depicted two young boys carving graffiti into one of the church’s pillars, while a dog lifts his leg to urinate on another. The fact that the same theme was used repeatedly by artists in addition to Witte is puzzling, but it demonstrates, at least, that the spiritual and the mundane do coexist, which is more appealing to me than the cavernous museums these churches have become today.

My last wish for the day’s itinerary in Delft is to see the Oostpoort, a graceful gate that was once part of the medieval fortifications of the city. Walking there from the city center is simple, but viewing it properly from across the canal is not. There is a bridge in front that should pivot to allow boats to pass, but when I arrive it’s askew and clearly malfunctioning and there are barriers down to prevent pedestrians from crossing. When a daring kid tries to sprint across anyway, he’s quickly grabbed by a guard and led back to shore. I wait with an increasingly restless crowd for a half hour or more, which annoys the guard further. He puts his hands together and gestures outward to indicate that we should walk either up or down the canal to the next bridge to cross, which is a considerable distance up and back again. I hesitate, not sure if it’s worth the effort on tired legs, all for the sake of a photo op, but I resign myself to it in the end.

Afterwards, I rush back to the train station, but the afternoon is waning fast. I had wanted to stop off in The Hague to see Vermeer’s “View of Delft” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” at the Mauritshuis, but in my haste and exhaustion I get off at the wrong station, Den Haag HS rather than Den Haag Centraal. I walk about, disoriented, and then decide I wait for another train. By the time I reach the museum at last it’s after four o’clock and the galleries close at five, leaving time enough for a quick peek at the Vermeers, but little else.

For dinner, I stop in Haarlem and at random pick Trattoria Piazza Viva, where their panzerotti and the waiter’s cheery bona sera fill me with warm memories of Italy. As luck would have it, I stumble across a gelateria by St. Bavo’s Cathedral and feast on a nice dish of ice cream for dessert in the city’s central square.

Once again, the day’s rain is gradually giving way to a beautiful evening. Back in Amsterdam, the air is pleasant and cool. In a moment of inspiration in front of the station, I buy a ticket from Holland International for a canal boat tour, where I end the night reclined lazily on a seat by the window, hoping that the last, feeble rays of sunshine will warm my face.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Poffertjes. If ever a day demanded poffertjes, it is this. In France, I had glorious little tartes, in Belgium I had chocolate, and in the Netherlands soft, warm, sweet little pancakes drenched in butter and powered sugar.

This morning, I’m dining at Sarah’s Pancake House, a name that seems destined for a suburban strip mall somewhere in America, rather than in an elegant arcade of shops in downtown Amsterdam. So far on my trip, I have described the rain as “misting,” “spitting,” and even “pounding.” By now, it’s starting to feel positively biblical. How long did the flood keep Noah at sea? Forty days and nights? We’re nearly half way there.

With that in mind, Sarah’s is a Godsend. There is just one young woman waiting tables this morning, and she seems to be doing all the cooking as well. In no time at all, she whips me up a warm plateful of poffertjes. These slide into my stomach so happily that I decide to order another. Why not? I’m in no hurry to go anywhere.

I chat for a bit with a family from Ohio, who have settled into a table next to mine, but eventually decide that I really should get up and do something. I had planned to take a train to Enkhuizen to visit the Zuiderzee museum, which recreates an old Dutch village with its assorted crafts and trades, but it’s an hour away and a bit expensive, and given the weather outside, I can’t muster much enthusiasm for the idea. I settle on Plan B instead—a far shorter ride out to Zaanse Schans, which offers a similar (if more touristy) experience for free.

On the long walk down to Centraal Station, I see a woman, dressed in a business suit, complete with skirt and high heeled pumps, lumbering with her bike up a humped-back bridge. She holds an umbrella in one hand and is attempting to steer, quite unsuccessfully, with the other. And the look on her face is one of complete and utter loathing. She is wet and miserable. It may sound cruel and unsympathetic, but deep down this pleases me. I was beginning to think that the Dutch were ridiculously kind and patient in all things, morally superior to the average American who insists on driving their car a quarter mile down the road to a grocery store. Well OK, as a nation of committed bike riders, they are morally superior, but at least they are reasonable enough not to enjoy it on a day such as this.

Against all odds, however—and on this, the very last day of my trip—the weather turns into quite a surprise. Soon after I arrive at Zaanse Schans, the sky breaks. The ground is still muddy, slick enough to cause to me fall painfully on my backside along the edge of one of the canals, but I hardly care. I wander through the gift shops, stop for lunch in a tavern called De Hoop op d’Swarte Walvis, and then gaze out on the village’s famous windmills. At the beginning of the 18th century, there were about 500 windmills in the Zaanstreek. In the village of Zaanse Schans today, only six remain, but they are beautiful.

I am sorry to have missed Enkhuizen, but this comes close to the Dutch landscape I had long imagined, even if I am too late to see the tulips fields.

Back in Amsterdam, I use my remaining hours to tie up loose ends. I climb to the top of the Westerkerk belfry for a fine view of the city. From here, I can see the attic window where Anne Frank once sat, imagining a life she would never live. I grab dinner at a Chinese restaurant near Dam Square, and then set off to see another classic image of the Netherlands I’ve long had in my mind’s eye. When I think of Holland I think of tulips and windmills, drugs and prostitutes.

For me, at least, Amsterdam’s “Red Light District” ultimately falls short of expectations. In an effort to improve the city’s image, some of the picture windows have been filled with fashion displays. Others contain scantily clad women who appear to be completely disinterested in their profession. Some gyrate absent-mindedly, others are fixing their makeup or filing their fingernails. One is reading a book. A liberal attitude towards sex seems to make the entire enterprise seem far less sexy.

After a brief look around, I head back to my hotel for the last time. Tomorrow, I have an early flight back to Philadelphia, where life as usual will resume, as if uninterrupted. Along the way, I see a coffee house sign that reads: “Are you sober? We can help! We’ve got the real ABSINTHE.”

Absinthe is a potent liquor of seductive green, made with wormwood and anise. Starving artists like Degas, Manet, and Van Gogh used to drink the stuff, as did Ernest Hemingway. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, he called it “that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea changing liquid alchemy,” and once he moved to Spain and Cuba, he used it to recall the better life he had lived in Paris as a young man.

For a fleeting moment, I wonder what Absinthe would do for me, and for all that I’ve experienced on this trip. Would it allow me to re-imagine the dreary gray landscapes I have seen in shades of ochre, turquoise, and pale green, as it apparently did with Van Gogh? Would it soften the edges of my memory, as it did with Hemingway? Years later, the scenes he recalled became his “moveable feast,” a meal born of longing that could be savored time and again, though the ingredients in their initial incarnation were often bleak.

I glance up again at the sign. I think maybe I should go in, but probably not. Time has the same gentle effect, after all. All of the memories we retain are selective, and those that last longest are often unpredictable. In the end, as Alain de Botton writes in The Art of Travel, we are driven—all of us—by the same basic impulse. It is to say: “I was there. I saw that, and it mattered to me.”

That is what I have done here. And for everything else, there is PhotoShop.