05 July 2018

Trains Around the World. And Asparagus.

The train was Italian. 
We were 4 backpackers, headed to Venice from Lugano. 
The year was 1971. 

(It wasn't this train - TEE was way too fancy for us. But similar.)

Every seat on the train was taken. The aisles were packed. It was hot. 
We pushed through the train cars until we came upon the mail car. Bingo! No one there. We made ourselves comfortable on the huge sacks of mail, windows wide open, the entire car to ourselves. 
In that manner we traveled - in complete unofficial luxury - to Venice for the first time. 

Ah, Venezia! Che bella! -Well, maybe not the pigeons.

That was my first real train trip - I was hooked.

Train travel definitely beat the alternative at the time. No one I knew had their own car.
In the States, train travel is rarely a consideration. It's cars. And planes.
But Europe has such great trains-! We decided this year - it'll be trains.

However, we chose the year the French Railway system decided to go on strike.
SNCF has been on strike for 3 months now, and are still unhappy.  

Their system: They work 3 days, then strike for 2 days. 
For convenience, their strike calendar is published online.  
Of course, we bought our rail passes about 3 minutes before they went on strike.

Everyone grumbles - with hands thrown dramatically into the air.
The usual comment: "C'est la France." - That's just France.

But: we wanted to visit Mikey and his family in Berlin.
And we did take trains. Here's the story:

Béziers train station - on a non-strike day.
 I found an overnight train from Paris to Berlin. A Russian sleeper train.
My train book said Russian Railways trains are rather good - and it was right.

It wasn't easy to find. Back in 1971, train travel was cheap and easy.
You went to the train station, bought a ticket, and got on.
(Of course you had to have the right currency.
If not, you slept in the train station until the exchange office opened.)

Today, there's still no good centralized site where you can compare train prices and schedules like you can for airlines. This particular train didn't show up on any of the French train sites, or the German ones. The Russian site was hard to navigate. I finally found the train on a UK site, but they wanted to mail the tickets (people still use paper tickets?) to my UK address, which I don't have.

And - the train only runs once a week, on a Thursday night.
You have to scroll through a day at a time to find it.
But I had a great rail book that said it existed, so I kept trying.

And - oddly - these days train travel is often more exclusive than airlines. Who'd have thought?

We had 2 friendly conductors for our sleeping car. No English. No French. They spoke a little German. (Isn't this woman in the red beret great? She's our conductor. And the wonderful style of the woman in the hat? She was Ukrainian, visiting her mother in Paris.)

We timed our visit to Berlin to make the best of asparagus season! Not the skinny green kind we're used to, but the fat white asparagus. "Spargel", which we ate for pretty much every meal.

And - we even visited a Spargel Farm. Really.

Mikey and Iris and baby Noah - at our asparagus picnic outside Berlin.
Look who's already got great taste in books!
More on that here:

Then - by train to Prague.

I'd last been in Prague in 1984. The architecture is still wonderful, (and the food is somewhat improved) but this time, there were thousands upon thousands of tourists! Yikes!
I remember it as being echo-y and empty. Foggy and a bit medieval-melancholy.

Prague. Busloads and busloads. Everyone using English to communicate. 
Determined to make this an all-train trip, I found another overnight sleeper train.
Austrian Railways - booked on a German website - from Prague to Zurich.

They often give you train slippers. They never fit Stan's feet.

Switzerland, as usual - is ridiculously beautiful. Even after working there for 5 years, I'm always impressed.

Then a day train back to Paris, where we had to wait a couple days for a non strike day. Spring - not too hot. Not too crowded. Perfect time to visit an art museum. A meteorite exhibit. And the mineral museum. The natural history museum. All within walking distance.

Our Airbnb was tiny, but - what a great view!
And - back home to Béziers by train.

Other memorable train trips?

The most bizarre of all has to be the "Bamboo Train" in Cambodia.
Whatever we were expecting, it wasn't this:

More on that here.

When another train came in the opposite direction, we had to lift our train off the track, wheels and all, to let the other train pass. Really.

The Nilgiri Hills in southern India.

A truly bouncing train in Shan State in Myanmar.
How can a train BOUNCE? But - it did. 

Sleeper trains in India - the best -

In the evening, they come in and make up your bed with fresh sheets and pillows.

Trains are a good place for friends when you're backpacking.

Heading north through Malaysia. This - was a really GOOD gang of international travellers!

- and night trains in China.

The Glacier Express in Switzerland, infinitely more civilized -

More about Swiss trains here.

And even one in the States. We took a trip on the Southwest Chief from Albuquerque to Las Vegas, New Mexico. It would have taken us 2 hours by car. It's not far. It only took 4 hours by train. (They were working on the railroad-)

But - sometimes, you know the phrase - it's the journey.

Las Vegas, New Mexico. Not a bit like the famous Las Vegas.

There's just something infinitely cool about train travel.

I know it's just a romantic notion, that people who have to take trains all the time might not agree. But - I still love it. The pleasure of being able to just watch the scenery go by. Reading on a train.  Being able to talk to other passengers a bit. Sleeping. And then, not having to park or wait for a jetway to appear. Just - grabbing your bag and stepping off at a station, waving good-bye.
On to the next adventure.

29 June 2018

Fête de la Musique, Friends, Fonserannes. Snail Farms and Paella Parties

One of the coolest parts about living on this boat is the great community we've got going here. 

It's so easy to wander by someone's boat. 
Get involved in a conversation. 
If they're up for it, a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. 
Or one of Stan's famous salads. 
And - it's also easy to say no - come by later. 
It's all so close. And casual.

Ron came by with a kilo of shrimp.
"They had a 2-for-1 sale at Intermarché.  -Want a kilo of shrimp?"

Patrick brought us a sack of freshly picked green beans.

Luc brought sweet onions from his garden.
And then invited us to a towpath paella party.

So many of them are talented musicians, artists, writers. 
They aren't all French - we have a wide variety of nationalities.
There's always a lively discussion going. 

They aren't all "boat people". They're also from the village itself. 

Hugues called down to us from his terrace: 
"Isn't it time for an apéro? Yes? Okay, I'll bring the wine!"
And he clambers down the canal bank with a chilled bottle of good rosé.

Turns out, he's a wine distributor, who's become a friend. 
Lives in the house where his grandmother grew up. 

A friend with a LOT of good wines, right next to our mooring.
This is very handy.

The owner of the local top restaurant came by. 
Would Stan consider playing guitar for the National Fête de la Musique? 
Bien sûr. Of course.

We wound up dancing - again.
And other, regular village festivals and occasions.

Plus - people come visit us. 
And that inspires us to explore even further.

Wolfgang and Monica came from their ranch in New Mexico. 

We visited the Fonserranes locks. 
An incredible engineering feat - just down the canal from us. 
A row of 9 stone locks, built in the 1600's. (more on THAT another time-)

We tried to visit the 2500 year old village on the hill above our town. 
It was closed for lunch. This IS France, and EVERYTHING closes for lunch.

If you look carefully, you can see the canal on the right - passing over the river, which flows underneath.  
Bob and Sharon visited from Albuquerque.
Oddly enough, we even went to a snail farm (!) during their visit.

And last year, Chris and Tim. Charlene. All the kids. It's great.

Yes, some of the people on boats take off. 
They throw off their lines and go up the canal for a week or a month. 
But eventually - they usually return. 
Each boat needs to have its official mooring spot, a place where it belongs.

Ron and Fiona pass by us on "The Swan".
I don't think I've had this good of a social life since college.
Can that be true? Whatever it is, it's fun.
The connections with people - it's one of the very best things about being here.
- Or maybe - that's true anywhere.

08 June 2018

Big Rivers and Manual Locks

Rollin' Down the River ... wait, that's not the Canal du Midi! 

We're on a river in the middle of France.
(There are a LOT of rivers in France - and this one - is actually called - the LOT.)
Rivers are different from canal cruising. They have a current. 
They can be big. Wide. Unruly. 
Okay, so rivers aren't always terribly wild and woolly. 
The Lot River is beautiful, but doesn't have much boat traffic. 
So all the locks are manual. 
There just aren't enough boats to warrant full time lock keepers.

So we do the locks ourselves.

It's a ridiculously picturesque region, dripping with medieval villages, châteaux, caves and castles.
And - as they say - a river runs through it. (A couple of big rivers, actually.)

(Underneath all these cliffs are masses of caves - some with prehistoric drawings from 30,000 years ago. Some with rivers. But that's another story.)

So here's our system while cruising the Lot:
Stan gets to do the locks. 
I drop him off, and he cranks the machinery. 

Close one side of the lock. Then open the sluices. 
It takes about a hundred turns of each crank.
When the water equalizes, open the gates.
One gate at a time.

I drive the boat in slowly. 
Toss the lines up to Stan.
I hold the boat while the water rushes in. Or out.

Inside the lock, with the waterfall / dam beyond.
He finishes the maneuver, and opens the exit gates.
Not always easy - and chunks of logs sometimes get wedged into the gates.

But it works. No electricity, no engines, no batteries.
Just the weight of the water.

Then, he climbs back down onto the boat with help of ladders built into the lock walls.
And - off we go. 

On the Lot River, you can fit 2 boats max in a lock at a time. 
Normally, there aren't any other boats. It's pretty quiet.

Driving the boat isn't hard. 
There's plenty of space, and plenty of time to get it right .
If you don't get it the first time, just - try again.

Nobody's waiting. 
Just miles of scenic beauty. 
And a few herons.

The Lot River is lined with cool villages, châteaux, caves and castles.
However, unlike the Canal du Midi, the strong river current is a factor in mooring. 
Upriver is easier, against the current. 
Bring it in close and slow, so Stan can jump off just right. 
Then secure it quickly - before it drifts downriver.

Pay attention to the signs and buoys.

This small arrow is the only sign that says, "Enter lock here". 
If you miss it, that's a big waterfall to go over. Yikes.

One night, a fellow went overboard in the dark. (splash!) 
He tried to moor not far from us on what he thought was a pontoon. 
It was just trees.  (It was nearly 10 pm!)

(I think there might have been some wine involved.) 
Someone pulled him out of the water, and they cruised off - at night.
Who knows what happened to them after that?

This wasn't our boat we were on. 
We'd rented it for the week. 
Actually, the first boat we rented - (isn't it a cute little thing?) - had engine problems.

And a toilet that didn't work. 
We had to swap boats after the first night.

Why rent a boat when we live on one?  
Well, you can't get from the Canal du Midi to the Lot River. 
There are waterfalls and dams in between. 

But what an incredible region!
Each town a medieval gem. History everywhere. 

And just so ridiculously beautiful.

The villages we passed were very rural. 
They were amazed when I told them we were American.
 "You came HERE? From America? How did you find the Lot?" they asked. 

A couple of fishermen baked us a camembert cheese in the wild one night.
With a fresh baguette. Offered us a wiggling catfish as well.
Talked to a few teens, bored on a Sunday afternoon, dreaming of the big city, Toulouse.

It's another world here.

This is a small corner of a beautiful country.
Okay by me if it isn't too exciting. I like that.

The story of cruising the Yonne - another time - is here.

Life - is amazingly good.