Posts Tagged ‘ferry’

I had actually slept pretty well all night in Galway, but Bear and Munk Mom insisted they hadn’t and when I peered out the window I found full evidence of the party they claimed had been going all night.

Not one, two, three, but four kegs

We had to make it all the way across Ireland in just a few hours which admittedly isn’t like trying to make it across the Midwestern Plains, but we really didn’t want to miss the next site so we got up a bit after 5 a.m. and were on the road before 6.

The M6 which for some reason becomes the M4 runs all the way from Galway straight to Dublin and we made the most of it, stopping only for fuel and pastries once. (Ironically, U2’s “Beautiful Day” was playing on the store’s speaker system, and I had to agree.)

We made it to Dublin and turned north to reach Bru na Boirnne, one of the most significant prehistoric megalithic sites in all of Europe. I’m a sucker for anything remotely archaeological and this site had made the UNESCO World Heritage list so it was a must.

The passage graves at Knowth

We did both tours and started by going to an exhibit that explained the astronomical significance of the solstice sun and how the light hits the passages at Knowth and Newgrange (the two main passage graves).

Replica of the entrance stone at Newgrange

Bus transport delayed for cows. They were everywhere.

After bundling onto a tour bus with our 23 new best friends, we toured the site at Knowth which featured a very impressive passage grave with a corbelled roof and kerbstones surrounding the grave.

From inside the tomb, looking back up the passage.

The art found at these sites contributes up to 40% of all the megalithic art found in Europe.

We were allowed to climb the mound itself and survey the whole area which gives you a good view of Slaine and the Hill of Tara as well as Newgrange.

Panoramic view from the top of Knowth

And if you’re very lucky, you’ll find your Mom sitting under the edge of the grave mound.

A new bus picked us up since we were on the double-bill, two sticker tour and took us over to Newgrange following that. Along the way we chatted with some of the other Americans and found that most were from the same party of a married couple who had come with the wife’s brother, their parents, everyone’s wives and kids to tour the mother country.

At Newgrange, I have to say that the tomb was just about the biggest thing I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a fair number of tombs from this era (Maes Howe, Widehill Cairn, Unstan Cairn) and this thing was pretty massive.

Newgrange, from the side

We couldn’t take pictures in the passage or the tomb itself, so you’ll have to take my word for it that the passage was really lengthy but fairly easy to navigate compared to some of the ones in Orkney I crawled through on hands and knees and mud. The guide was really thorough and pleasant and she gave a good talk about the solstice light which comes in for five days at the solstice in December. With the use of some electric lights, the chamber was cast into darkness and then a thin light which replicated the sun’s beam on the morning of the solstice as it comes through the roof box and falls along the stone passage floor to hit the far wall of the furthest chamber.

We made it back out without hitting our heads, which is saying something for Bear as he stands a good head above most everyone else here in the UK.

Entrance to Newgrange with the lightbox entrance above the passage (the light comes through here on the Winter Solstice). The attendants were very dedicated to making sure you ducked as you went in.

Megalithic art

After we finished exploring the grounds, we went back to the visitor center and had a pretty weird lunch which Bear found pretty inedible but he was a good sport about it and we got more food once we got back to Dublin and got on the ferry to return to England.

While on board, I managed to finish the latest Dexter novel and spent some time trying to think on the next writing project I want to undertake. My problem is that I legitimately have three different directions I can go but not nearly enough time for any of them,  but I suppose it’s pretty embarrassing to complain about that when getting back from a trip to Ireland.

How Bear and Munk Mom spent the ferry ride back to England.


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Another note about ferries — just because the official paperwork says you have to be there no less than 2 hours prior to departure doesn’t mean you should take it seriously. We did however which was why we came hurtling back down the mountain at 5:30 a.m. and pulled into the ferry office to find everything closed and no sign of what to do.

About 90 minutes later, after we had parked and walked out for a pastry and drink before coming back, people straggled in and we all got in a ragged line, something like “Make Way for Ducklings”. Bear is fascinated with ferries and trying to figure out the economic underpinnings of the operation. He kept asking me if I thought there were enough cars in the line to make this crossing a profitable one. I must confess that this has has never even remotely crossed my mind and I didn’t really care if SNMC collapsed into bankruptcy and economic ruin the minute after we landed in Sardinia just so long as we got there safely.

In case you were wondering, this is not exactly my happy face.

I had hit something of a wall the day before in Corsica and needed some serious downtime. Bear thinks that riding in a car for nearly 15 straight hours is great downtime; I do not agree. There will need to be some changes to the way my free time is structured once we get back from Sardinia but for the moment I settled for putting in earphones and reading an entire Rick Riordan novel on my Kindle while listening to a recording of a thunderstorm.

This is me somewhat happier because at least I’m quiet and sitting relatively still and have had a shower

After landing, we got out of the industrial Porto Torres as soon as we could and stopped at a roadside stand about an hour away for sandwiches, chips and cold sodas. I know even less Italian than I do French so the real miracle was that we got out with anything like what we had ordered.

The lagoon(ish) at Chia Laguna

Somewhere after that I completely passed out and woke up in Chia Laguna at the southernmost tip of Sardinia. Since we had been listening to The Langoliers by Stephen King, a story about airplane passengers who woke up in mid-flight to discover that all the other passengers had disappeared, this was a little disconcerting.

Bear has an apertif on the open terrace

The resort is pretty amazing — we got checked in, unpacked, and finally I felt the earth stop moving. The water was hot and after five months of mostly cold, brief, bitter showers in the UK, that was worth the entire trip. I found that the wifi in the room was pretty abysmal (even worse than Istanbul and Barcelona, if that’s possible) so I went on an expedition which was unsuccessful to find the business center, but I did find the gelato shop so not entirely a loss.

Bear collapsed and was too tired to find the covers so he made a little hut out of pillows

We had dinner on the piazza which was beautiful and I had a spaghetti with clams that had a really nice briny tang to it (hard cheese and the salted clams). Dessert was oddly bad considering how great everything else was. Note to self: don’t get the fruit tartlet. In retrospect, this was the last decent meal I had in Italy.

Still too amazed by the plentiful hot water to pass up the chance, I took advantage of the incredibly deep stone tub and soaked while Bear watched the Eurovision Song Competition results. He had been a little dismissive of the competition at first, but by the  time I got back he informed me with some intensity that Sweden deserved to win and the Russian babushkas were adorable, but Moldavia was really good, the Icelandic and Danish singers were great, and that Ireland had worked its butt off but they had basically prostituted themselves and looked like “manic elves”.

(In case you think that’s too harsh an evaluation of Ireland’s entry, please witness the video link below and tell me if I’m wrong.)

“You know,” I said, “ABBA won in 1974 for “Waterloo” and that’s what launched their career.”

Bear’s family has something of an obsession with ABBA so that was all it took to ratchet up his support for Sweden this year, but we passed out before finding out the next morning that  Sweden had indeed won.

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If I were to make a list of things I love about France, at the top would be great showers and patisseries. I put the showers first on the list because I haven’t had a decent shower in England the whole time I’ve been there, and there’s nothing like a really hot shower with good water pressure for as long as you want to make everything seem OK again. Then you add a fresh French pastry with a cold Diet Coke out of their little fridge and life is beautiful. In retrospect, I think this was my favorite day of the entire trip.

We drove south to Niems (where we get the word denim — the cloth “de Niems”) along the Rhone while listening to (you guessed it) Vangelis and some of the soundtracks he composed for some French films in the 70s (Le Apocalypse de Animaux and Opera Sauvage) which seemed very fitting.

Colosseum, Jr.

Pantheon, Jr.

Roman baths, Jr.

Temple of Augustus (not so Jr., not too many of these)

Bear had done all the research for this trip which was an enormous relief for me. For about a decade he has labored under the misperception that I like planning trips. I like them being planned. I like knowing it’s all taken care of, but I would rather not have that on my plate in addition to everything else that won’t quite fit on it. I like not feeling responsible if the place is closed when we get there. I like just sitting and being surprised. Thank God this finally sank in and Bear rose to the occasion like a champion.

He had located a walled medieval city, Aigues-Mortes, where we stopped for lunch and to look at the walls. The city’s name means the Dead Waters as it forms an impressive natural harbor, one of the only ones in France at the time of the Crusades and it served as the departure point for the Seventh and Eighth Crusades.

A walled city comes with…walls

Statue of one of the Louis(s) who led a Crusade that departed from the city

Bistro Bear!

We also saw some of the half-wild white Campagna horses in the salt marsh flats. The horses are used by the riders who herd the bulls used for bullfighting in the region, which I think makes them collaborators but it’s not exactly their fault either. They made a movie about the horses back in the 50s called White Mane and I saw it in school and I still have a really clear memory of  the final scene where the white stallion and the boy swim out to sea to escape the men trying to capture them.

We went through Arles also and saw an even more impressive amphitheater there as well. It was a little surreal to stroll along the pedestrian streets, past the cafes, watching the people with little dogs and children.

Arles Amphitheatre…not for ants

Me: Did you ever think someday that you would meet a ‘munk who would ask you to come along on her migration over the seas?
Bear: Yes, I did. I need to call her.
Me: I had her number blocked.
Bear: Damn.

Honest to goodness scenes of street life in France which really is a lot like the movies

We headed on to Cassis after that, making our way towards Marseilles and ultimately Toulon which is where the ferry to Corsica docks. Bear had found a cool cove/inlet along the way which is used as a beach now but pirates used to pull their ships in centuries ago, so we pulled over and walked along the beach, watched some guys jump off the cliffs, and got our first real look at the Mediterranean.

Ravine/crevice leading to the cove at Cassis

The Mediterranean

The roads are extremely narrow and remind me a lot of the famous car chase from Ronin, or just about every other scene from a Jason Bourne movie. To make it a little more fun, I found the Jason Bourne theme on my iPad and stuck it in Bear’s ear as he drove.

Side note: instead of trying to fight it, the French seem to have embraced graffiti as an art form which sort of renders it null and void.

We got to Toulon early to be able to get a quick dinner before the ferry because this was a crucial part of the trip. They don’t run as often as you’d think so making our reservation was absolutely essential. The quick part though wasn’t very easy either as most restaurants didn’t start serving until 7 p.m. so we had crepes at a marina cafe and got a recommendation for a seafood restaurant next door.

Super Banana Nutella Crepes (or so the menu said, but I did have to agree)

The owner was very accommodating and understood via sign language that we really had to be on the ferry in an hour, so he whipped up an amazing platter of sea bass, monkfish, scallops and crab for Bear and a pot of mussels in Roquefort and cream for me. The only downside was how quickly we had to eat and run off.

Mussels in Roquefort and cream

When we arrived we found that all the other queued cars behind us had gone and we were alone in the parking lot. Not a good feeling! Then we scampered up to the loading area we were informed that the car was “too long”. Personally I’d though the same thing a few times while parking but in this case it meant that our ticket was incorrect. (We will not talk about who set up the ferry registration but his initials begin with Bear.) We had to return to the ferry office and I ran like a maniac across traffic to get to the main window and re-register and pay an additional fee to get Dieter’s details updated. No one seemed to be terribly concerned by this, which was a small comfort although my heart rate was through the roof. One does not simply walk into Corsica.

The updated fee? 6 more euros. Seriously.

That panic over, we got into our cabin and collapsed.

And he wasn’t even the one running like a hamster on a runaway wheel

It didn’t take Bear long to recover though and we were off to explore the ship, which was basically a mini cruise ship, complete with restaurants, bar and casino. Up on the top deck, people were gathered for the disembarkation, running around, and playing tag with their kids.

Some people honestly didn’t book cabins. I don’t know if they stayed out there all night or were just practicing to be extras on some “coming to America” film maybe, but the cabins were pretty nice. Get one!

Let’s take a moment for me to apologize yet again for all the misperceptions I’ve had about French culture through the years. I really fell victim to the exaggerated stereotypes you see in movies, the snarky rumors that the French are stuck up about speaking French, that they’re rude or unpleasant. That couldn’t be further from the truth. In both the countryside, the big city and then also the major cities, everyone has been unfailingly kind, friendly, warm and good-humored. They’re emotionally open with their children and friends, they value good food, good service, and talking. I really like it there and we’ve made a deal to get some Rosetta Stone software to learn at least some functional French because we’re definitely coming back to spend more time.

I was pretty tired after having stayed up late working the night before, so we packed it in, enjoying the AC in the cabin and simply passed out.

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The interesting thing about “Eday” is that it doesn’t rhyme with Sunday — it’s pronounced “Edie” like the woman’s name (or the ice cream, depending on your priorities). We had picked to spend the day on that remote island though and since we weren’t likely to run into anyone, it didn’t seem to matter if we got it right the first time.

(Here’s a hint: Eday is in green)

The blessed hot water I was looking forward turned out to be there, but in very weak quantities but I’ll trade water pressure for heat any day of the week. The room came with a nice cooked breakfast and they let us even make extra tea to take in our thermos mugs for the expedition. Graham, the chief cook and practitioner, had also packed lunches for us to take and I crossed my fingers that Bear wouldn’t have the same bad reaction he seems to have to all box lunches. I have no idea what happened to him at some point in his life to make him so averse to a basic bag lunch.

LuSeal personally overseeing the day’s travel plans

We drove back up to Kirkwall and got to see some of what we’d zipped past in the dark the night before.

One of the ship wrecks in Scapa Flow by the Churchill Barriers that link some of the lower isles

The ferry dock was easy to find and we lined up and were on the ship in no time, heading northward up to the Northern Isles and to see Eday.


I had picked Eday to visit out of everything else because of the number of archaeological sites on it as well as the difference in the natural landscape. After a blessedly uneventful ferry ride over, compared to the roller coaster of the ferry from Scrabster, we landed and hit the road exploring. The stated goal was to drive on every road on the island and we definitely accomplished that.

Moss in the graveyard right on the southern coast of Eday

Supposedly there are 121 people living on the island now. I saw 2. I don’t know if the other 119 were just sleeping in because it was Sunday or if they were all at some kind of secret clan meeting but there wasn’t sign of hide nor hair of any of them.


Our hopes of seeing a puffin were unfulfilled as the best area for birdwatching can only be reached by a hike and by midday the temperature had plummeted and the intermittent rain combined with the wind was making any kind of lengthy hike not such a good idea.

Bear and the Setter’s Stone

We found the Setter’s Stone around midday, the third highest of the standing stone sites in Orkney.

Druid Bunny HQ

I also found definitive evidence that the stone circles are being maintained by rabbits. The little devils are apparently direct descendants of the druids and are maintaining a complex social network centered around the neolithic sites. Who knew.

Setter’s Stone

After a valiant effort to locate the Vinquoy cairn, we surrendered to the elements and ate lunch in the car to wait out the rain which was occasionally turning to sleet. Either Bear really did like the lunch better or he decided to be polite and lie.

Either the coastline is shrinking or people just liked building things as close to the water as possible

No signs of seals either, which we were afraid LuSeal was going to take badly but in typical egocentric fashion she decided that this proved how special and unique she is so she was really happy in the end.

Again, ignore much of the video commentary as the wind carried away about a third of what was said, but if you’ve ever wanted to see the ferry dock, well, here’s your chance.

Having literally driven the entire island and being down to reserve fuel (no gas stations in sight), we parked back by the ferry and I won Wife of the Year points for a) having gotten all of the 4th season of Southland onto the iPad, b) having bought the video player app to do so, and c) having bought the iPad in the first place two years ago. Overlooking the bay, watching the waves and the gulls, eating snacks and watching a great show in the warm comfort of your own car was a really nice topper on the day’s field trip.

Sleepy Bear on the ferry (much calmer in the area between the Orkney islands than out in the open North Sea)

Back on land, we went to Helgi’s for dinner, a well-established spot in Kirkwall by the harbor. Bear had spiced salmon and I had linguini with Mediterranean vegetables and a really nice side of hummus. Bear also had a mojito which he said they did fairly well (ironically, the worst mojito he ever had was at Ted’s which you think would make a really great mojito).

Since it’s staying light until very late, we had time to go out by Mull Head to look at some really cool cliff formations and try to do see some birds as well. For once you can hear the audio because the wind had died down. (I am still vaguely disturbed that based on the video footage from this trip I seem to be channeling Hugh Grant.)

The name of this thing is, brace yourself, The Gloup. It’s a sea cave whose roof has collapsed

On the way home we stopped at the Italian Chapel which is on the same island as our hotel. I had read a little about the Italian Chapel and it sounded a little odd but since we had to drive right by it, I said we should stop. The back story is that Orkney was home to a number of Italian prisoners of war during WW2 and they performed a number of important jobs, like building the very causeway bridges we were driving over to reach St. Margaret’s Hope. The prisoners also wanted a place to worship though and asked permission to build a chapel. All must’ve been going very well because they were given permission and two metal Nissen huts which they spliced together into one single building. And then they got busy doing what Italians do best which is making gorgeous architecture.

The altar end of the chapel

I guess this is what happens when you’re Italian and bored. We decided to go back later in daylight because the pictures needed to do it justice.

Bear spent some time on his own making secret plans when we got back to the hotel so tomorrow should have some more really cool things to see in our first full day on Mainland.

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There are some basic things to know about Bear. The first is that he likes food. The second is that he only likes the food that he likes–if it’s not what he likes, you might as well have handed him a glass sandwich.

So leaving Inverness at 7 a.m., on our way to parts of Scotland we’d never seen, I now found myself the proud owner of 2 packed lunches after Bear had a bite of the first cheese/tomato sandwich (which I really liked) and then he rejected it. Knowing this about him though, I’d packed some extra cookies and things which kept him happy until we reached the ferry.

I guess I won since I got both lunches out of it

Along the way we saw some hairy coos, the gigantic Scottish cattle that look like baby aurochs. Bear also thought he spotted a puffin and we backed up on the tiny coastal road to check, but it had disappeared. This only bears mentioning because my stated goal for the trip is to see a puffin.

LuSeal was pretty quiet for the first part of the trip but woke up when we stopped at Tesco for drinks and became insufferable after that. She kept insisting we switch out the music and that she only wanted to listen to Oceanus by Vangelis (which she believes was written personally for her) and we finally did just to shut her up.

While on the ferry, we went up to the restaurant to get some lunch and were passed by a group of guys, one of whom was wearing a strapless floor length purple ball gown. He wasn’t a transvestite–he had scrubble, a moderately hairy chest, heavy silver dive watch and a devil may care grin. I didn’t get the whole story but something tells me a spectacular bet had been lost. No one on the ferry batted an eye.

It’s not fair — I think he had more cleavage than me

The ferry ride itself was pretty rough. Apparently this isn’t unusual for the Pentland Firth and later we found out that even the locals think it’s rough. This video is from a different crossing, but it wasn’t all that far off. The general consensus was that if the video below was a 10 out of 10, then our crossing was an 8. I wasn’t sick (other people were) but I was glad to be in calmer waters.

When we got back to Dieter on the car deck to disembark, we found that LuSeal had gotten sick all over the back seat. She seemed really embarrassed that she couldn’t tough out the crossing like a real seal should have, so we pretended not to notice.

When stuffed animals throw up…

Once off we got a quick lunch at Julia’s Place which had of all things Moroccan couscous with pine nuts. we had plenty of daylight and decided to hit as much as possible before nightfall. Bear had studied the maps extensively and I was incredibly impressed when he guided us straight to the Stones of Steness without even needing the sat nav. One of the unexpected things I noticed about Mainland is that the interior is dominated by several large inland lochs (lakes) so you almost always feel like you’re on a coastline. Many of the ancient sites are close to a loch and archaeologists believe that the culture was drawn to the water and that guided the positioning of the rings of standing stones and the great cairns.

Stones of Stenness

At the Stones of Stenness I made an interesting discovery. It’s not the modern day druid wannabes who have taken over the maintenance of the sites. It’s bunnies.

Druid Bunny, monitoring the site

This little guy just moved in and is apparently very confident in his position as the modern day guardian. He let us walk up quite close and take pictures galore.

Bear providing scale

The site is a part of a cluster of sites that have been marked by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, so we also had to see the other parts known collectively as The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The Ring of Brogdar was just up the road and even larger in scale.

Ring of Brodgar

Flower wreath left on a stone at the foot of the ring

We went to Maeshowe (Maes Howe) also but had to book a tour for later as they go in small groups and everything was already booked for the day. We headed then for the largest site of the group, Skara Brae.

In 1850 a violent storm blew away some of the dune landscape near the Bay of Skaill on the western end of the Mainland island and revealed a buried Neolithic village complex. It was studied off and on over the years and finally protected when as the true significance and fragility of the site became apparent.

Bay of Skaill

Analysis of the construction reveals that the village was definitely planned and surprisingly sophisticated. Each of the 7 houses is laid out in the same manner with 2 beds, one larger for a man, located to either side of the entrance and a set of shelves/dresser that is directly opposite the entrance. In the center of each house was a hearth with niches for shelves around the room. Most houses contained four sided boxes sealed with clay to be watertight and it’s believed that these served as live wells for bait and fish. All houses were joined by a low passage which made it something like the world’s earliest known subdivision, planned community.

Inside a replica of house #7, the best preserved of the site

A custom from the Scottish islands until fairly recently was for the man and woman’s beds to be placed to either side of the doorway. Personally, with winters being so cold up here I would think survival dictates as much cuddling as possible.

After going through the museum and the replica, you’re guided out along a walk with markers for significant events in history to set the chronological mood for you as you approach the village.

Is it my imagination or have generations of little English feet been kicking at the right edge of this stone?

It’s a little hard to describe the feeling you get as you approach the water’s edge of the bay and see the remains of the village nestled into the hillside. The wind is absolutely murder and makes even speaking difficult. The landscape has changed in the 5,000 years since the village was first built and they believe that erosion has bought the coast right in to the edge of the village whereas it was further inland before and more sheltered.

Skara Brae

You can see easily how each house follows the same basic plan of two beds, shelves/dresser and hearth.

Skara Brae

I was really surprised by going into the replica how much room there actually was, considering that you really wouldn’t want too much air space there to heat unnecessarily.

Skara Brae

One structure follows a completely different plan and it seems likely this was a workshop for stone and bone tools, located at the end of the sheltered walk at the end of the village.

Don’t bother trying to listen to the audio on the video above — the wind makes it utterly impossible to hear, but you can see the site and get an idea of how powerful the wind is.

We asked for advice on a good place to eat and were directed to the Merckister Hotel on the shore of Loch Bur? so we drove over to locate it and make reservations for the night. With promises of fresh fish and scallops, we headed back out to Kirkwall to kill the remaining few hours until dinner.

St. Magnus’ Cathedral dominates the center of Kirkwall and the town itself grew up around the church. The structure is made of red sandstone, the same rock that forms most of the Orkney isles, and also yellow sandstone from the nearby isle of Eday where we’ll be going tomorrow. It’s not nearly as ornate and grandiose outside, but the interior is very nice and well-preserved.

St. Magnus’ Cathedral

Light from the stained glass windows on the interior pillars

Nearby was the bishop’s palace (his traditional residence) and also Judith Glue, a nice little craft and toy shop with a full out cafe in the back. We had a Date and Oat Slice, which turned out to have a lot more sugar than you might imagine, and some really good Highland tea.

Bear decided on the way back to the restaurant that we had a few extra minutes so we turned off to investigate Widehill Cairn. The short version is that we were told that it was about a 1/4 mile hike from the sign we found up near the top of the hill (which looked more like a baby mountain). The long version is that, well, it wasn’t. We hiked and jogged and hurled ourselves along the path, leaping over muddy patches, landing in the heather, and miraculously not breaking an ankle.

I became worried that we would miss our dinner reservations but we were so close that we had to press on and finally found the cairn set there against the hillside with a terrific view of the land below. I have no idea how it was discovered being so far up there, but I’m glad that it was.

Widehill Cairn

Top hatch

The cairn is accessible through a hatch in the top and you have to descend a ladder straight down into the dark tomb.

Bear thinks he looks goofy in this. I think he’s adorable.

There’s an open passage that lets in the natural light of the sun and put me in mind of the scene from the Hobbit where Bilbo realizes that the riddle on the map is that the last light of the sun on Durin’s Day will align perfectly to reveal the hidden keyhole in the side of the Lonely Mountain to lead to Smaug’s treasure horde. I have no idea what the sun was supposed to shine on in this case, but it falls directly into the cairn and someone must have cared about this person very much to have gone to those efforts.

Front entrance tunnel of Widehill Cairn

There were a number of side chambers that we shined a flashlight into and fortunately nothing stared back at us. (I was starting to have flashbacks to The Descent again, especially that part where they were using the night vision setting on the video camera…I’ll never be able to do that again.)

Side chamber of Widehill Cairn

We had to run back up the hill and I safely worked off all of dinner by the time we got back to the restaurant, about 20 minutes late but without any problems. The only difficulty came when Bear placed our drink orders at the bar and one extremely inebriated individual had a great deal of difficulty accepting that I really wanted tap water. He sputtered and coughed and kept flailing around that if he had come to a restaurant he certainly wouldn’t be ordering tap water. His friends were waiting on the taxi to take him away and that was the end of that.

I had booked a hotel down on South Ronaldsay island in St. Margaret’s Hope, as much for the rates as being able to have a place that was further away from the main activity so we could see even more things. We passed signs to at least 2 other things on the overall To Do list so we can get to those very easily before we go. Mostly I was glad to have a nice clean room with plenty of space, a closet, a shower with hot water and a Wifi connection.

And yes, there were 2 beds, on opposite sides of the room. Old habits die hard.

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On Easter Sunday morning, we went back to the same Halal Bakery and Butchery and then went to Père Lachaise Cemetery to find Jim Morrison’s grave. Finding a grave cam be a little more complicated than you might imagine because it’s hard to plan ahead and keep everything alphabetical.

This guy came and flopped down as we walked past, opened his shirt and there were EKG studs stuck all over him. They weren't hooked up to anything. Moving on!

We’ll skip over the part where Bear thought we were looking for division 30 number 6 and it was division 6, number 30. No need to mention that’s nope, none at all. But we had a lovely tour of the cemetery. It was really gorgeous and along the way there was Murat, Seurat and Oscar Wilde and some very nice America school kids on spring break who had a map. Gotta love a map.

One of many roads a man may walk down...wait, that's Dylan

Even though I do enjoy some of The Doors’ music, just basic hits really that you can’t escape having heard at some point, my interest in Jim Morrison’s grave was a little further off the beaten track. One of my favorite singers in the 80s and early 90s was Steve Taylor, a somewhat off kilter, clever, satirical songwriter who took aim at his own faith but without being insulting to the faith itself. But God help you if you were a televangelist, a hypocrite or got into the media for all the wrong reasons. Most famously he had a song (“Colour Code”) regarding the Bob Jones University policy of not allowing interracial dating , a policy which has recently been repealed. But back in the 80s, when it was still in effect, Taylor would call up the university before the start of each tour and inquire if the policy was still in place and then keep playing the the song until finally the policy was repealed, probably more because of media attention than his efforts alone, but hey good for you man!

I had this poster on my bedroom wall plus the t-shirt and an autograph too.

My favorite Steve Taylor album was I Predict: 1990  and when I was in high school I managed to talk my dad into driving me four hours to see Taylor play at the first stop on his tour for the album. It was at the Tampa Fairgrounds and the conditions came together perfectly for an outdoor concert. He went on stage at 10 p.m. and the wind had just cooled things off when the man absolutely exploded into the stage with “Jung and the Restless”, a scathing indictment of a misguided psychoanalyst, then went charging through the catalog and winding up with an encore of “Jim Morrison’s Grave,” a song about the perils of seeking immortality through celebrity.

I get weary, Lord I don’t understand
How a seed got strangled in the heart of a man
While the music covers like an evening mist
Like a watch still ticking on a dead man’s wrist
Tick away

Ironically, that concert was the night before Easter, so it seemed really fitting that we be here in the cemetery on Easter now, seeing the actual grave, where Steve Taylor had filmed the video, surrounded by reminders that fame and renown in this world are fleeting at best and while the pieces may remain, like a watch still ticking on a dead man’s wrist, that life and resurrection aren’t found in these monuments of stone.

Jim Morrison's grave

We made one more stop at a bakery on the way out of town, taking a different route up to Calais to catch the ferry back to Dover. We stopped for lunch at a cafe in Calais and I’ve learned that my standby food in France will forever be a cheese omelette.

Pondering the Resurrection...and why I ate so much

We also learned that if you show up really early for the ferry and there’s not many people on board that they’ll just shove your butt on it two hours early without even asking how you feel about it. In this case, I was really happy but it was a little unnerving too.

A word about ferries. They’re cool and this one was much nicer than the crossing to France. It was a much newer ship and no large groups of hyped up school children. We had a tea from the Costa coffee bar, sat down in comfy seats, I read my book, Bear had his iPod, and it seemed like no time at all before we were driving off and back into England which looked no worse for wear since we’d left it. And yet somehow it looked a bit less cool because we were used to it and we were heading back to work and worst of all, Baby Juliet was at the cattery for another day so we didn’t even have her to greet us.

That aside, Bear has evaluated this as the best birthday ever, even surpassing #27 when he got front and center seats to Van Halen and got to meet them backstage (turns out he’s much, much taller than they are), so I think my work is done here and I can rest on my Wife Laurels for at least a week or two.

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Like the Rolling Stones (whom I prefer to The Beatles), we gathered no moss following the Loreena McKennitt concert and drove straight to the Dover ferry to cross the Channel to France for the full birthday weekend in Paris.

Bear goes to Paris

We arrived at the ferry just in time and spent the crossing in the lounge upstairs listening to a pack of wild French school children rampage through the upper decks. They had way too much energy for one in the morning, but I still managed to catch a cat nap on the crossing. Then magically you all get back in your cars and drive off in a very orderly fashion.

Then came the adventure of driving on the right hand side of the road again (at 3 a.m.) after getting used to the left side for so long. Our hotel was right on the water in Dunkirk and by that I mean it was on a shipping quay in the marina next to a construction site. That’s what you get when you let me book the hotel. Cheap first, safety second. Actually, it was a really nice little place but in a very odd location. They had been extremely nice when we wrote to say we’d be coming in around 4 am and they set up a lockbox for us so we could get our key and check in on our own,

But finding the hotel was the first issue and we went all over the town looking for it. Eventually we actually stopped to ask the police which lets you know how desperate Bear was because he wouldn’t ask a Google maps car driving past if he saw one. Eventually I saved the day (she says modestly) by realizing that there was a museum on the map very near the hotel and the GPS actually knew where the museum was. (Uma the GPS was refusing to acknowledge the hotel or any street name within a 5 mile radius.)

The next morning, we got to meet Sophie at the desk who had helped us by email, and she was very nice. We did however have a cultural exchange moment in which we thought she was saying everything was good to go and in fact she was saying that the credit card I put the reservation on wasn’t going through so we still owed her money. Big difference.

Good morning, France!

We drove around the Dunkirk town center and finally spotted a genuine French bakery and descended like the pack of starving wolves we were. Two cute girls were working there and they seemed very charmed and patient with us. They thought we were English and by the time we convinced they blurted out, “Why did you come here for?!” as if to say, “You had America, why Dunkirk?” Considering the effort that had gone into evacuating most English speakers from Dunkirk during the war, they had a point.

Brunch for Bear

We got the usual pain au chocolat, of course, and something else that I suspect was a brioche with raisins and gulped them down in the car before hitting the road to Paris. Bear had been listening to the same Vangelis album since we left St. Neots and we finally agreed maybe it was time to switch and he picked the Revenge soundtrack. Again, one of my least favorite movies but the music is fine so now I associate the French countryside with blood, death and revenge in the Mexican high country.

Somewhere along the way Bear decided that the area we were driving through looked just like South Dakota. I don’t remember this many trees in Dakotas at all. Beer says that there area, but in the areas around towns. I don’t remember any towns either.

We arrived without incident and even managed to find the hotel without running up on a curb which is something of a miracle for us. The Etap hotel is designed like something out of Space: 1999 and it’s all very compartmentalized for budget travelers. Hello, Munk! You can park underneath in something that I initially thought was the Catacombs and then pay quite a bit when you finally leave, but compared to not finding parking at all you’ll find it very reasonable.

Once checked in, we headed downtown on the Metro and got the two day visitor pass which lets you ride the metro as much as you want. Again, very worthwhile for about 15 euros apiece. We surfaced on the island in the middle of the Seine by Notre Dame and stopped for a quick lunch in a sidewalk cafe. I had a cheese omelet and Bear had a salmon sandwich that he said was one of the best he’d ever had.

Slammin' Salmon Sandwich

As soft drinks were 6.5 euros apiece, I stuck with water and thought it was very good water actually. You really can’t take these things for granted. We walked over to Notre Dame and were initially worried about the size of the line to get in, but it moved extremely quickly.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Detail of one of the three portals to the cathedral.

Once inside, we realized that they were just about to start the Good Friday mass, so Bear could tell I really wanted to stay and he suggested it. I got a little Magnificat guidebook from the attendants and we snagged decent seats fairly close to the front. The irony of this is that I’m actually on the Magnificat mailing list back in America, quite possibly one of the few Protestants who is. (I did it for book research as my last novel had a Catholic character whose foster father was a priest and I needed to understand some of the terminology and daily routine.)

I’m not really sure how to describe the mass (a tenebrae service that extinguished the candles in sequence to leave the congregation in darkness) or how I felt except that it was really remarkable to be thousands of miles from home and in another language, but still joined together with other believers in the same place at the same time around the world. Except for my Orthodox friends who persist in holding onto that darned Gregorian calendar. (Love you, Laura, Kristina, Frederica, et al!)

The mass was mostly a recitation of the passages from the Gospels of the events leading up to and including the crucifixion and they had different singers for the passages which included dialogue, including women for the servants at the fire who spoke to Peter. I even managed to translate some of the Antiphon that the congregation sang, based on the fact that the pastry shop in Tallahassee is called Au Peche Mignon (the little sin). I always had a feeling that would come in handy.

We got up to the part where they were about to start communion and made a decision to exit as I’m not confirmed in the Catholic church (out of respect for their general preference that you not take communion then) and there were about 872 other people in the building with us so Jesus might come back before we got through it all. This reminded me of an incident from about ten years ago when my best friend Laura became a believer but had a philosophical/aesthetic objection to our church’s use of grocery store wonderbread for communion (you could still see the sandwich crust shape, like someone had just taken a cleaver to half a loaf and chopped up some pieces). Half joking, half serious, I had bought her a pack of communion wafers from a Catholic supply store so she could take her own and palm a wafer during communion. The issue though was that these only came in packs of 1,000 so she kept the rest of them in her freezer since you need at most 12 a year. At some point she asked me why I had gotten such a big pack (it was all they had) and something was blurted along the lines of “Isn’t Jesus coming back any sooner than this?!?” I have no idea what happened to the remaining wafers as she happily sailed down the road to Orthodoxy and has a perfectly respectable communion now.

After leaving the cathedral, we spent a while walking quietly along the Seine, talking about the service and how amazing it was to have literally walked into the service, and looking at the bridges and the architecture. Note: I am not a huge fan of ornate, baroque style architecture with flourishes and gold leaf. I can completely understand why people love it. I am, however, not one of them. Give me a stone wall, a moat and something decaying please. Bear had an amazing time though, ambling along and staring. I just stared at him instead and was just as happy.

The Seine (no sign of any nets -- people outside of North Florida might not find that as funny as it really is)

We made it over to the grounds of the Louvre on foot and got some tips for when we would return the next day and the lines would be huge, then walked the grounds which  are huge themselves.

Courtyard plaza at the Louvre

We made it out to the Champ Elysses and picked up a metro to the Eiffel Tower area to find a restaurant in the district there.

Not the actual Arc d'Triumphe. It's more like a mini-Napoleon sized version.

The staff at Le Crocs d’Ogre were incredibly accommodating nad worked us in without a reservation. The French restaurant culture, at least in Paris, seems to rely very heavily on meat–boeuf, boeuf and more boeuf! I had determined to just order as best I could and hope God would forgive me for any slips in my vegetarianism. (Note: I don’t think it’s a sin to eat meat. I still eat bivalve mollusks myself. But I do think that there are better choices, for health, for stewardship of the earth, and for compassion. That said, bon apetit!)

Goat cheese appetizer

Grilled razor clams

We made it home by 12:45 a.m. and collapsed into the space bed, and even though I was happy that it had a good mattress something tells me that I wouldn’t have noticed.

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