The valley of balloons…the city of thieves

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The life of a French Mistress

Being the French mistress of a monarch in the 16th century definitely had its rewards. The best one may be that such a woman could get an entire chateau built for her in the French countryside. By chateau, of course, I mean huge sprawling castle. The Loire Valley, located southwest of Paris, is the land of chateaus. The most beautiful one is Chateau Chenonceau. It spans the River Cher, with a wing of the house serving as a bridge across. There are two beautiful gardens, one for the mistress Diana (lovely and grande), and one for the wife, Catherine (smaller and more intimate).

The mistress’ gardens


The official story…

The story goes that King Henry had the chateau built for his mistress. Upon his death, Diana gave the Chateau to Henry’s wife, believing that it rightfully belonged to the family. The Chateau is, of course, grand, lovely, and all that. Of *course*there is scaffolding. Every single place we have visited on this trip has hadscaffolding (except in Scotland…hmm….). Our Tory British friend from dinner the night before informed us that these grand mansions across the UK and Europe receive a tax break from the government if they are “under construction”. Hence, up goes the scaffolding, regardless of how much actual “construction” is done. Regardless, it is a beautiful place, not plagued by hordes of tourists (although it is busy) and when you stand along the river at just the right place, you can get apicture of the wing that spans the water in perfect arches. Those archesreflect on the water to make it look like perfect circles. I wonder if the architect had that in mind.

The reflection of the arches on the water

The World War II Connection

The most interesting story about Chenonceau is actually from World War II. Apparently, the River Cher divided the country between occupied France and Vichy France. The French Resistance helped people flee occupied France by entering the Chateau on the occupied side, crossing the wing that spanned the river, and sneaking out on the Vichy side (not that Vichy France offered much assurance of freedom, either, but perhaps easier passage to Spain via the Pyrennes). There had been Nazi plans to destroy many of France’s landmarks– the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles, and the chateaus.

the River Cher

The walk around the grounds of Chenonceau is relaxing after our busy days in London and Paris. We return to our B&B in Amboise, rest for the afternoon, and explore the shops and ice cream stands.

Images of Amboise

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Hot Air Ballooning with Phobias

Amboise is a quaint village of cobblestone streets and its very own castle. This is the village where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life. It is quite touristy but very pleasant, with the only local bit of flavor seeming to be the young men on motorbikes that speed through the pedestrian streets in races designed to surely kill someone. The afternoon turns into a beautiful evening and we drive to the location of our splurge excursion for this trip – a hot air balloon ride over Loire. Given that I have a fear of flying, this seems pure in sanity on my part. However, the outfitter that we are going with – France Mont Golfieres, was the first company in the world, at the end of the 1700s, to construct a hot air balloon and fly it over Paris. I figure they know what they are doing. The first surprise that I received was the fact that the baskets are, in fact, baskets. Wicker. The stuff that my futon in college was created out of and was always breaking. This was going to be between me and the earth below?


No one else seems disturbed by this so I decide to get over it. After all, these were the best pilots, according to Rick Steves. The second surprise was the many other balloons taking off with us, each with a different combination of vibrant colors. So fun! Inflating the balloon takes about 30 minutes, and Stan and I climb into our little section of the basket and we’re off! The basket is divided into six sections, as a picnic basket would be for holding bottles of wine. There are 14 of us “wine bottles” in the basket along with the pilot. I pray for strong wicker.

Taking off

The sun is still bright; and despite being above the treetops (and much higher at certain points), it was warm. The view, though, is amazing – we see Chateau Chenonceau, farms, fields of flowers, and many other balloons. The sunflower fields are vibrant yellow, and depending on the angle,they change shades to show off their brown centers.

Chenonceau from the air


Fields and fields of sunflowers


Flying over fields with other balloons


Up in the air...

Flying over sunflower fields, wine vineyards, and ….excitable dogs.

The pilot maneuvers us up and down, this being the only control he really has. We are the wind: There is very little breeze because weare flowing with it. We float along for about an hour, occasionally disturbing the local canine who barks furiously at this odd invasion. We float above a family barbecue; the pilot lowers us to just above the treetops to wave “bonjour!”and “bon apetite!”

Oh, yeah…we still have to land this thing

As the pilot begins looking for open fields in which to land (and there are a LOT of open fields) I ask him about power lines. “Are they a problem? Or can you maneuver around them?” They are definitely a big problem, he says. The trouble comes when they are behind a tree line and a pilot doesn’t see them. I don’t ask what happens then. I don’t want to know. “They are the experts, they are the experts, they are the experts…” This is my mantra. Instead, I ask him about the fields they land in – do the landowners ever care? He shakes his head. “This time of year the harvest is over and it is no problem. It is in the spring when the harvest has not happened yet and we land in their fields.”

Like a flying case of winebottles

I can see where we are about to land, and the pilot’s advice to us is to face the opposite direction, lean against the cushion on the side, squat a little bit, and hang on! “If we tip over, we tip over. It’s okay. You’ll just be on your back and you can climb right out.” I’m looking at all the senior citizens on this flight and wonder about that, but who knows, maybe French senior citizens are more capable of this than US senior citizens? We approach the ground at a brisk speed, touch down and drag, then stop. We’re still upright! Yeah!

tipping over with total strangers…


Then we drag some more, and stop,and then drag, drag, drag, and I can tell we’re going to tip over. Stan and I lean forward thinking that surely he and I alone can keep this basket upright. Ha! We finally stop; we proceed to tip over. And then… everyone is laughing and giggling and taking pictures, and thinking how awkward it is that 14 total strangers are basically lying on top of one another, but it is great. We crawl out of our basket in time for the pickup crew to hand us a glass of champagne. We toast our success (all in French, so I’m assuming they were toasting our success) say our “au revoirs” and head back to our B&B.



Toasting our success!


Loire to Versailles is like relaxation to _______ . 

Another great day – was this foreshadowing of things to come? Stan and I talk about how the next day is going to be arduous – we have to leave at 8 am to get to Versailles. We have a plane to catch at 5 p.m. to take us to Barcelona. I spend that evening catching up on a day’s worth of online work and remember that I have a research paper due the next day for my quantitative methods class. So, I dig into the class work while dealing with spotty wifi in our room, and eventually relocate downstairs to the living area to finish my work late in the evening. We make it out the door of our B&B by 8:30 a.m., and have fairly quiet roads leading back to Paris. We stop at a rest area on the highway for some decent coffee (none to be had in Amboise) and are surprised at the filth and trash everywhere. The rest areas in the UK are great – there is a Costa coffee at each one (Costa is *so* much better than Starbucks, I can’teven explain it…), an organic foods store, bathrooms, etc. These leading to Paris are just gross. Plus, we’re on a toll road for an hour that drains us of about 17 euros. And the toll booths….oy vey…the toll booths.  So. slow.

We finally arrive in Versailles and park in what I am sure is an illegal parking space. Stan figures we’ll just get another ticket to add to our souvenir collection. I’m worried we’re going to get towed. We walk to the massive (and I mean absolutely the hugest building I’ve ever seen) palace and look for a place to enter. First mistake. I didn’t get the Paris Museum Pass, so we have to wait in the line. That takes us an hour.

The line at Versailles




If I’d wanted to line control I guess I could have gone to Disney…

When we finally get to the ticket window (where there are, I think, 3 people selling tickets for the legions of tourists outside…ugh) we see about a* dozen* automated ticket machines in a room off to the side, which very few people are using. Why on earth didn’t they have these at the beginning of the line????? We get to the window and I ask for a map. Sorry, those are at the entrance to the building we passed in the line about 30 minutes ago.

So I weave through the line like a salmon swimming upstream, get my stupid map, only to be told by the pleasant fellow at the information booth that the fountain show (for which we came in the first place) doesn’t start until 3:30. We’ll be long gone by then. I grumble something and look entirely too American, I’m sure, and weave my way back through the line to meet up with Stan, angering several people along the way who think I’m cutting in front of them.

We’re finally in and now we have to go through security. That’s a separate line. Once we’re *finally* inside I want to shout with glee, except that there are so many people around me that I can barely move to do that. Plus, I need to find the “toilet”. I see the line for one, but it looks like another hour and a half wait.

Stan and I wander out toward the gardens, whereupon there is another line for the poor souls who don’t have a ticket to the gardens. Fortunately I bought the all-inclusive ticket (unfortunately, it was at Disney World prices). The grounds are lovely and they have piped in some sensory-calming baroque music. I look on the map for the restrooms, and spotting their location we set off.  This is a half hour line because, while the bathrooms are decked out in all marble and are lovely, there are only two of them. While I’m in the restroom, Stan marks the highlight of our day by finding a sandwich and beer and a shady bench.

The gardens, fountains, and ponds


The gardens are even grander than the mansion, if that is possible to imagine. On the map, the Palace looks like it is about 1/50th the size of the gardens. There is also the whole Marie Antoinette section further down the gardens. The map indicates that if a person started at the Palace and walked the entire length of the gardens in a straight line it would take them an hour. Wow. The cross-shaped fountain/pond is large enough for boats, and we see several people enjoying time on what I assume are paddle boats.

The Hall of Mirrors

If it weren’t for the fact that I wanted to see the famous Hall of Mirrors, we would have stayed in the gardens. But, I do want to see it, and incorrectly assume that we can go to the Hall of Mirrors, take some pictures, and leave. In order to get into the mansion we have to exit the grounds and reenter through security. (The person who designed the flow of the crowd at Versailles should really take some lessons from the master planners at the Louvre). The tour is like a conveyor belt: once you’re on it, you have to follow the ropes and the masses, and you can’t get off. What a nightmare. I couldn’t even enjoy the fabulous paintings for all of the tourists who would stop in each doorway to take a picture. We finally get to the Hall of Mirrors, take a few pictures, and leave in frustration.

Beautiful painted ceilings


Hall of Tourists (er, I mean…Mirrors) inside Versailles


So, to recap, here’s my advice for Versailles:

1)     Don’t go. Look at pictures on the internet.

2)     If you must go, don’t go on a Sunday.

3)     Use the “toilet” before you go.

4)     Figure out a way to buy your tickets ahead of time. The Paris Museum Pass is a good option.

5)     Pack food – you’ll need sustenance for the visit.

6)     Lower your expectations. This is Disney World meets the Renaissance with really bad crowd control and no fast passes. We return to our car to find that it is still there and there is no parking ticket. Yes! Things are looking up.

What do you get when you cross two tired travelers, with a dose of hubris, in a city known for pickpocketing? Read on and you’ll find out…

Flying from Paris to Barcelona to catch our cruise ship was a last minute decision before we left home. The plan had been to take a train across France but the train trip was 13 hours and more money than the one-hour flight. So, we opt out of the romantic trip on the train for the econo-flight with decidedly less ambiance. The budget airline – Vueling –is a Spanish operation.  Our flight is packed to the rafters with Spanish teens returning to Barcelona from their weekend in Paris.

Vueling, teenagers, and a flight from Paris to Barcelona


Stan and I find ourselves sitting between two girlfriends who proceed to talk over us while flipping through the Spanish version of Tiger Beat. The plane is warm, the refreshments are nil, and the flight bumpy. By the time we arrived in Barcelona, we were hot, tired, and thirsty. At this point in our trip, we had taken public transportation at almost every destination. Riding a bus and a metro seems like the fastest way to get to our B&B that is located right on Las Ramblas and across from the Marina where our cruise ship will dock.

Pride goeth before the fall…


We locate the tourist information office at the Barcelona airport and are given curt instructions on how to get where we are going from a very uninterested and tired employee. We eventually find the right bus, and pride ourselves in figuring it out and avoiding the taxi, which would have undoubtedly been a very high fare given that the airport is so far out of Barcelona. Hubris is probably not warranted here – pride goeth before the fall and all that.

The bus drops us off at Plaza Espana where we were to catch the green metro to our destination. We walk through the metro maze below the streets of Barcelona and eventually locate our destination. By this time, we’re exhausted from carrying our luggage and still thirsty. We drop our stuff on the ground while waiting for the metro, and I quickly locate a vending machine to buy a diet Coke. Well…the coke explodes upon opening creating a huge puddle on the concrete floor right where we are waiting for the subway. There is nothing for me to clean it up with, so it stays there, only to be used as a diversion a few minutes later.

You’re mugging me? Really?

Stan and I are too tired to notice the young men near us who have obviously noticed us. The train arrives; we hoist on our backpacks and grab our handbags. One young man walks in front of us and “slips”on the coke, while Stan reaches forward to help him. The other young men surround Stan and start to yell at him about how he needs to clean up the puddle, all the while pushing and shoving him, and grabbing at his clothing. I find myself confronted with another one of their group who is pushing himself into me on the train, trying to grab the bag that has my laptop in it. No way! You can have my purse but I’ll be damned if you’re getting my livelihood!

I manage to shove him off (I’m taller than him, which in retrospect is amusing to me) only to see Stan surrounded by about 3 or 4 of these jerks and still not on the train. I yell for him as the doors are closing, and he manages to push his way on the train somehow. We are both dazed at what has just happened. The other travelers look unaffected. Because, you know, this happens every hour or so I’m sure.

Hello, Visa?


This was a coordinated operation. One of the travelers on the train tells him to check his pockets. No iPhone. Blast! At least they didn’t get his camera or my laptop. I realize that as careful as I had been with my money belt and passport, that my passport is carelessly tucked into my pocket.  It’s still there. Thank you, Lord. We’re both slightly shocked as we travel the two short stops to our destination. We spend the evening calling AT&T, Stan’s credit card company, and changing passwords on email and Facebook. It’s amazing to me how much information we store on our phones.

Still have work to do…

I still have a research paper to write; it is not going to be a fun evening. That’s okay; with Versailles, a hot plane trip, and getting pick pocketed (which was slightly more than a random pickpocketing and not quite a mugging), this has been the day from hades, so I might as well finish it off with having to write a research paper. Major frustration ensues when the internet goes in and out, in and out. I wish I’d known about Cellomobile back then. 

The next day we wander around Barcelona, having a morning and afternoon to kill before we get on our ship. It is crowded and hot, and I am on edge. Every young man is a potential thief; I scowl and squint at local and tourist alike. “Tara,” Stan says, “why are you scowling? Those guys you were glaring at seemed friendly. They’re not going to rob us.” I don’t care. I can think of a Tower in London where I’d like to send those thieves from the night before. Stan insists that we ride the metro again to “face your fear” (boo!), and we actually find ourselves back at the same stop where we were pick pocketed. Deep breaths and a wary eye proceed. We make it through okay, and manage to enjoy a bit of Barcelona’s sites before we board our ship.

La Sagrada Familia (with scaffolding, of course)

Boarding the ship!


We arrive to the cruise ship terminal ready to end this part of our journey. It’s nice to think that we won’t have to pack and repack every few days. We’re on our way through the Mediterranean, and reflect on our voyage so far. What an amazing trip it has been.

~  Tara Ross

Up next: Seeing Vernazza before the ruin

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4 thoughts on “The valley of balloons…the city of thieves

  1. Oh. My. Gosh. What a scary situation. Aside from that, I love your photos and descriptions. And the funny part about “don’t go – look at it on the internet.” :-)

  2. Thanks for commenting, Leslie! Yes, it was quite scary. I look back on it now and remember how it all played out and it was just the perfect set up. Oh well…it makes for a good story and no one was hurt, so I guess that’s it. But, France was wonderful and I’d even go back to Versailles if I didn’t have to actually leave the lovely gardens. :-)

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