Archive for the 'Travel' Category


Paris views old and new

What I mean is: a couple on this short slideshow everyone has seen, others not.

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Paris day 2: watch the gang of thieves in action

I may just be one of tens of millions of tourists who’ll visit Paris this year, but maybe if enough of them complain about the gangs of thieves roving the popular spots of this great city, something will finally get done.

Day 2.

I went back to Montmartre by myself the morning of my second day to catch the views now that the sky had cleared to an impossible blue.  I also went there to try to film the gang of thieves that had harassed us the day before.  My camera doesn’t take the greatest video, but the clip below will give you a good impression about what tourists have to deal with here.  Not just at Montmartre, but in front of Notre Dame cathedral and the Tuileries gardens to name just two places my friend has been forced to yell at them this trip just to keep the herd at bay.

Watch how they swarm around these Asian tourists, who are forced to flee in fear:

They carry these clipboards they thrust under your nose to distract you while the rest of them – having failed the courses in the finer arts of pick-pocketing – start patting you down like some TSA officer on too much coffee.

I hung around a bit hoping to get a closer shot of them, but by that time three of Paris’ finest flics ambled past and the gang had disappeared.

As the police trio strolled toward the grand staircase leading up to Sacré-Coeur, I approached one of them and said, “Bonjour Messieurs, I’m sure you’re aware of that gang of young women accosting tourists up here.”

Ah, oui,” said the tallest one.  “You mean the Romanians.”

“Yeah, the Romanians,” I said.  “They are SO AGGRESSIVE!  Yesterday I had to yell at them in English to get their paws off me.”

“That’s what you have to do,” he replied.  “You have to get rid of them.”

“That’s what you have to do on the street,” I said, “but don’t you think that’s trying to take care of the problem at the wrong end?  It’s like drug trafficking.  Can’t something be done to stop them before they even get out here?”

He gave me a Gallic shrug, sighed, turned toward the stairs and said, “Yeah, well, you know….”


Dutch skating world on edge as 11-city tour may be announced

What the hell am I doing in Paris?

Talk about horrible timing.  Don’t make me wrong, I like being here, my old friend and I are having a great time and we’ve still got lots of  things lined up to do, BUT:

The famous Dutch 11-city skating tour might be announced this week!

There have been thousands of volunteers working to prepare the course.  All that remains is the go-ahead that the ice is safe enough with an overall thickness of at least 15cm.  If the race actually happens, 16,000 people will take part for the first time in 15 years.  The canals have frozen enough to skate a couple of times since then, but never enough to allow the Dutch to re-open this legendary race.

Not that I’d actually be foolish enough to punish myself with more than 200 km of skating in one go.  My  legs were rubber after about 70km three years ago, and that was just leisurely sliding all day.  These guys go flat out – the record is under seven hours!

I have to arrange time off to get over there.  It has to stay cold another few days after I get back.  Damn you, Paris.


A week in Paris: Day 1

I may be pining for the canals of Holland and hoping they freeze over again, but for now, a trip that’s been in the planning for quite a while before Europe turned hard and frosty is finally under way.

It’s great to be back in France.

Things have changed a lot since I was this blond kid of 22, faking a photo in front of a wall plastered with pissing forbidden.

I’ve come to Paris to meet up with an old, old friend, who’s so old he’s here because he just retired from 25 years of teaching and is on a celebratory tour of France and Morocco.

By the end of this week, we won’t have spent this much time together since we tramped through forests and across beaches far beyond the last reaches of Tofino, BC more than 10 years ago.

We met 26 years ago at university in a programme of professional teacher training.  My friend went on to have a fine, rewarding career in teaching for which over the years he won the respect of countless students and colleagues.  I found I hated teaching and failed the course miserably, starting what turned out to be a four-year downward spiral of failed attempts to get going in another direction that only really stopped when I left Vancouver for good.

We’ve remained good friends all this time, but don’t see each other that often.  In the last 10 years  I’d say we’ve hung out fewer than a half-dozen times.

But meeting him today at his short-term apartment in the 20th Arrondissement, it was like he – and the way we’ve always been hanging out together – had never changed.  We had breakfast together jabbering for what seemed like ages about our lives, wives, plans, and such before heading out in the cold.

Day 1.

We walked for miles through the streets of Paris, my friend as my guide.  We saw a few old men along the way, and I remarked that you don’t see many of them of that age in Germany.

We ended up inside Sacré Coeur at the summit of Montmontre after running the gauntlet of an extremely aggressive gang of Eastern European street thieves.  A tight pack of 20 or so girls between I’d say 16 and 22, they swarmed around us like hornets, thrusting petitions in front of our faces to get us to sign – and hopefully distract our attention – while accomplices threw their hands all over our clothes in a brazen attempt to figure out where our wallets were hidden.  Turning around and hissing DON’T TOUCH ME, GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME was the only thing I could do to get them to back off, but they only paused for a second or two before attacking a passing Japanese tourist with the same tactics.  As the poor woman tried to flee down the steps of Montmartre, we yelled at them to leave her alone or we’d call the police.

My friend said they’ve actually been hauled to Paris and are held in a type of slavery, forced to steal upward of €300 a day and if they fail to do so, they get the shit kicked out of them by their captors that evening.  Forget having police patrol the area so the tourists don’t get hassled, what about throwing in jail the mafia that organise it all?

With that happy thought in mind, we went down the hill to buy cinema tickets for a showing at 3pm.  It turned out to be one of the most horribly depressing movies I’ve seen in ages, highly inadvisable if you’re suicidal or have loose razor blades lying around.  It’s called Louise Wimmer and tells the story of a fiftyish woman who’s left her husband and is waiting endlessly for a place in social housing, sleeping in her car, working as a chambermaid and pawning off her few possessions in a slow, desperate attempt to stay afloat before she finally goes under.   I suppose if you’re in France anyway and haven’t had your daily dose of Albert Camus (everything is meaningless, the best thing you can say about any day is that you haven’t decided to kill yourself –  hah-hah, Gosh, don’t you just love the French…) Well, just go see this film.

After the film we parted.  He went home to bed, I went over to the Théâtre Antoine near to where I’m staying where I bought us two tickets to go see a play for tomorrow evening: Inconnu à cette Adresse.  (Address Unknown)

This time the choice was mine.  It’s a two-man play based on the book by Kressmann Taylor and tells the story of the relationship between a Jewish American and his German business partner during the early 30s as the Nazis were gaining power.  I’m sure it will be equally as uplifting.


Praying for more cold so there’s skating in Holland

It’s so cold here the rivers are starting to freeze up.  But I wish it were even colder, and stayed that way for at least another two weeks.   That way the canals of Holland will once again be safe for miles and miles of skating.

Just a little over three years ago I raced 550km from Hamburg to just south of Rotterdam for the chance to slip on the skates and slide around the windmills for three days.

And now that a Russian winter has invaded western Europe, could it happen again?  A lot of people are guessing it might.  Every day this past week dozens of people have been landing on this moribund blog after googling skating in holland.

I’d do anything to be able to do it all over again.  There’s nothing else in winter quite like it.


One day I’ll see inside the Yorkshire Air Museum

My whole reason for being in York one year ago was to go to the Yorkshire Air Museum to see the Canadian section and look up any information in their archives about my uncle Vince.  

But as I walked back to the hotel after a glorious first afternoon out in the snow, I started to realise that after waiting a decade or so to even make the trip and travelling half the length of the country just to get there, I was probably going to make it to the front door, but no further.  It wasn’t exactly high tourist season already – part of the reason I’d chosen to go in winter in the first place – but with the city looking much like an ol’ Mother Hubbard gingerbread house, I called the museum to make sure they were open.

I got an answering machine and the usual message about opening and closing times, but nothing more.

Not good.

What the hell, I thought, might as well give it a try and if nothing else at least I’ve seen the place.  So the next morning I headed back over a bridge into town for the stop for the half-hour bus ride out to the museum’s airport hangars.

The bus driver was pretty clear about what he thought of my idea of going to the museum.

“Yoo’ be’er looook i’ u’ I do’ owt ump rfhu toda'” he said, pointing to the sky.

“Yeah, you’re right about that,” I said.  “But I have to go out there to see it anyway.”

Seeing as how the bus route had been changed on account of the snow, the bus driver didn’t charge me for the trip out, which I found quite friendly.  He and I – there was nobody else – quickly passed through the outskirts of York to arrive at the corner where he’d drop me off.  Normally I’d have taken another bus directly to the museum, but it wasn’t running.  Did I need any other clues the museum would be closed?

Since the sidewalk was covered in snowbank, I walked about a mile and a half at the side of the road to finally arrive at the museum entrance.   Deserted.  Already I could see planes – a massive bomber covered in snow was pretty hard to miss – but there wasn’t a soul around.

Placing my boots in a couple of tire tracks I crunched through the empty parking lot and  looked around to find a few planes, a hangar or two, and acres and acres of white.

But around a corner and across a small field I came across what must be the Canadian section.   The plane with two maple leaf flags is probably a Canadian-built Avro, but if you know it’s not, please tell me.  Of course I couldn’t go inside the building, so was left to contemplate from a respectful distance the course of history and my family’s small part in it.

Near the plane is a modest plaque of the Canadian Memorial Hangar:

Per ardua ad astra – Through struggle to the stars: the motto of the Royal Air Force but also others including the RCAF.

Despite the blinding morning sun I was by now freezing cold, so turning in my tracks I headed back for the trudge along the road whence I came to catch the bus back to York, telling myself I’d be back one day.


York Minster in snow

The train from London to York, stuck somewhere half-way, finally lurched forward again after a 90-minute delay.  The safety gate at a level crossing had frozen in the upright position, so the train could not proceed until it was freed.  As the train limped in to York station under heavily laden skies that were once again starting to unload their burden, I figured I was lucky.  I could have been stuck back in London, and who on earth would ever want to be stuck there…?

As I hauled my bag to the hotel about 15 minutes away, passing groups of happy teenagers who looked like the weather had kept them away from school for the day, I started to realise that I had a rare opportunity that afternoon to take some urban winter photos in a place I’d never been before.  Every 15 minutes it would dump like a day-long blizzard, then suddenly clear up.  There was hardly a whisper of wind, so the tree branches were feathered beautifully.

After dumping my bag at the hotel I headed straight for the old town and York Minster, the second-largest Gothic Cathedral in Europe after the colossal Cathedral in Milan.   There were a few people about, but hardly any traffic braving the snowy roads, so it was fairly quiet as I padded through the streets and over bridges, pausing to take in a few sights on the way.

I came across more of the teenagers I’d seen earlier by the station.  They were making the most of the snowfall.   A few of them had climbed over the gates on the ancient wall encircling the old town to pelt snowballs at drivers and pedestrians below.  Others dragged sleds up the steep slopes of a castle and spent the afternoon whizzing down the embankment.  Some didn’t even bother with a sled.

The sun was now low in the sky about a half-hour before dusk. I found myself alone in the immense churchyard, making a slow circumnavigation of the cathedral as the sun played off the snow draping the spires.  Though I’d read how spectacular it is inside – much of it reconstructed after a devastating fire in 1984 -  I left that ’til later, savouring the late-afternoon light and contrast with the brilliant layering of snow.

Enjoy the slideshow if you don’t mind this technical problem I ran into:  I tried to remove from the slideshow the two photos already published above, but couldn’t figure out how.  Still have a lot to learn about this blogging thing.

Monday: frozen out of the Yorkshire Air Museum.

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Frozen out in York: how I never made it all the way

Some of my posts take ages to get published.  This is the first of a series of four of them, about a trip during a massive snowstorm one year ago this week that I took to York, England.

All I wanted to to was get to the Yorkshire Air Museum to muse over a piece of family history.

On the night of March 30-31, 1944, during the Nuremburg bombing raid, the Halifax bomber in which my uncle Vince was flying was shot down 7km north of Frankfurt, Germany.  He managed to bail out, but was captured along with three others of his crew and confined to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  After he was liberated he made it back to Canada, started a family and lived his life.  Despite the amazing nature of his ordeal, uncle Vince told us all very, very little about what happened during his war years.  There were whispers to us when visiting that asking him wasn’t what he’d want, that he didn’t like to talk about it.

So the family legends out of what might have happened to him only grew.  They were ALL wildly off the mark, but they remained stuck in my mind, and it was precisely this shroud over the facts that instilled a fascination for my uncle Vince.  He was the only one of the three boys on my father’s side to go to war.  My father – the eldest – was excused on medical grounds, while the youngest of the three was in still in air force training in Canada when the war ended.

A few years ago my uncle Vince’s widow was asked to attend a ceremony at a flight museum  in York, England commemorating the Canadian airmen who served in the war.  I’d always wanted to go to see how my uncle is mentioned there, and to marvel at the reconstructed Halifax bomber family legend says holds pieces of the plane he’d been shot down in.

But I never seemed to find the right time to go to York until one week at the beginning of December last year.

You might remember that week one year ago now.  A fistful of winter.  It’s not that it snowed that much, but this is England, remember.  The British bureaucrats in colonial times made sure that railway station roofs in subtropical Malaysia were built to withstand the weight of three feet of wet snow, but as soon as a few flakes start to build up on the railway tracks back home even today, the whole country’s system screeches to a halt.

No, wait.  First they make sure to get you on the train and half-way to your destination, and then they shut it down.

So it was on my way to York after having hopped to London from Hamburg to stay with a friend for a couple of days.   Things didn’t look bad pulling out of the station on time, and once we left the bleak wastelands of London’s sprawl the trip north through the blankets of snow was an endlessly changing panorama of slow-laden trees and hedgerows stitching together the rolling hills.

But after a few delays and false starts, the train came to a full stop about an hour short of York.  Before they finally announced that we couldn’t proceed owing to snow blocking a level-crossing gate, I’d imagined the worst.  On a lot of lines in England, if there’s any build-up of snow on the tracks the contact between the “third rail” – the one with all the juice running the train – and the train itself gets clogged up with ice, and it all just stops, and they have to close the line until it can be cleared.  This can take hours or even days if the weather doesn’t change.

Tomorrow: visiting the Air Museum.  Or not.


In love with Gran Canaria

It was my first time on Gran Canaria.   Although I knew it was going to be sunny and warm, ringed with sand and rocky cliffs and gouged with the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, I didn’t have any inkling how stunningly beautiful I was going to discover the island to be until I rode a mountain bike one morning from sea level to 1,100 metres.

Away from the coast you slowly climb impossibly narrow and twisting roads to stand facing stark outcroppings of lava weathered to craggy fingers topping massive layers of basalt dozens of metres high.  A turn of the handlebars and you’re following a rocky ledge atop cliffs plunging 500 metres to the valley floor.  Climb a little higher and you enter a pine forest.  You stop for lunch with a view to another island more than 50km away, and suddenly realise the air is so pure, so fresh, you could be miles from anywhere.

And you are, because having left behind the walrus colony of package tourists and leather-tanned pensioners lolling around in their thousands down on the beaches, you’re up in the mountains with nothing to hear beyond the wind sighing in the trees like a distant river.   Once in a while at the very top you’ll get caught in fog, a thick swirling blanket as the rising air chills, but it’s never there for long.   I went up there for six days of biking spread over two weeks, and every day it just got better.  I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.

Every morning I’d wake up expecting my body to tell me to just fall back into bed after the pounding I’d given it – and the bike – the day before, but I just had more energy.  I just had to get back up there to discover something new.

Is it possible to fall in love with a place?  To miss it so much after being away for only a week?  I guess this first time was a short fling and destined to remain a sweet memory, but I’ll be back one day with the family.  They should see this.

Here’s a sample of what I saw in two weeks on Gran Canaria.

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Hiking the Stawamus Chief

Living as we do out here in the flatlands of northern Germany, every trip back to Canada we look forward to a little bit of hiking.  For the past four trips – 2005, 2006, 2009 and just this past month – the red-haired girl and I have climbed up the Stawamus Chief, a massive granite monolith whose sheer face dominates the eastern side of Squamish, British Columbia.

In 2006, we went up as a family with a friend of hers to Peak 1:

In 2009 we made it the furthest yet –  to Peak 3:

This past month we first went to Peak 3, then skirted down through the forest and up again to Peak 1.

I fully expect the photo of our next hike up to show some little guy next to a tall red-head.

It takes about two hours to climb as the trail winds up through evergreen forest along a rushing creek before branching off into paths leading to three separate peaks.

As the sign at the trailhead says: this is no walk in the park.

The first part is quite steep and dominated by wooden stairways, recently upgraded to allow for the massive increase in the number of hikers over the past few years.  On our way down this year we started counting the number of people we met along the way.  In only 30 minutes we counted no fewer than 215 people including 16 children plus eight dogs headed up the path as we were headed down.

I’d slip into a nostalgic riff about how when I was a kid we used to walk up there on a weekend and meet maybe a half-dozen people on a crowded day, before launching into a tirade about how the explosion of tourism is ruining the planet, but because I get up to that far too often, I’ll spare you.

Besides, the atmosphere in this post-industrial version of Canada is a lot better than it used to be.  You used to see – and smell – great wafting drifts of white smoke shifting up or down Howe Sound from the former pulp mill at Woodfibre.   The former mill site you can see as a white patch on the far shore behind us in the background.  The mill was taken down a few years ago and shipped for reassembly in China.  Far up the Chief you also used to hear the background sound of woodcutting machines at an equally massive sawmill plunked at the entrance to Squamish, but it’s been gone for ages.

These days the town promotes itself as the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada, so if the tourists have picked up and that and descend on the place in their thousands every summer day, that’s the trade-off.  The surrounding countryside is so much cleaner than it used to be, making the view from the top even more worth the climb.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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