Kimonos in Kyoto


If you are coming to Japan to see ladies (and men) in Kimono – then let me recommend Kyoto. We’ve seen hundreds of folks wearing Kimono – not all of whom are geisha – or for that matter – normally wearing Kimono!

It turns out that there is a very large industry here in Kyoto in Kimono Rental. For anywhere from $15 to $30 a day, you too can be dressed in Kimono, complete with hair ornaments and proper sandals. They even provide tabi socks and proper hand bags. These places advertise madly – and not just in the Gion area where you might expect it. We spotted Kimono Rentals near the train station and near several of the major shrines. There was even one near Nijo Castle.

So how to tell a ‘faux’ kimono wearing young woman or man, from the real McCoy?

Dead give-always include speaking Chinese not Japanese. Or wearing sneakers. Sometimes you can spot leggings or pants under the kimono – that’s another sure sign it’s a faux Geisha.

Hairstyle is often another sign that the gal wearing a kimono is actually a tourist, although many orientals have long hair, and the kimono rental places do a good job of getting the hair up, and the hair ornaments in place. So that’s not probably the best sign.

If you spot an iphone – particularly one being used to snap ‘selfies’ – it’s a faux.

Overly bright colours are also a give-away – the gals that we’ve deemed as real tend to the more conservative styles and colours – those fluorescent reds, pinks, violets and oranges are often the choice of young ladies who want to look flashy – not necessarily like wearing a kimono is natural to them.

As for the men – we’ve spotted men in Kimono that look incredibly dapper and well dressed. They hold themselves erect, and walk with purpose. Often they are older gentleman – who we’re guessing either are extremely conservative, or feel that wearing a Kimono sets them apart. Whatever – they do look very smart!

The ‘faux’ male atire is often cotton, wrapped poorly around the guy – and almost certainly on a guy accompanied by a female faux geisha. I’m guessing there was some arm twisting involved. In any case, very few of these guys look like they are comfortable – and certainly one wouldn’t describe them as dapper. Often they look like they are wearing bathrobes – not even nice ones either.

There is another dead giveaway – but this required looking at the way the Obi is tied in the back. There is a cheap trick to getting that fancy knot on the back of the Obi – it is a separate piece of fabric, tied in a bow, and then fastened to a metal hook. The hook slides in the obi folds, creating what appears to be a bow tied in the sash. But it’s a fake. And if you know what to look for, it’s easy to spot.

The older the person wearing the kimono, the more likely it is that the kimono is real. I spotted older women gossiping on a street corner – and I’ll bet those kimono were real. On the other hand 3 young ladies giggling madly over ice cream are not serious about their kimono.

Last but not least – look for folks wearing Kimono that are doing things that a tourist wouldn’t be doing. For example, I saw one gal pushing a bicycle. I’m pretty sure her kimono was real, just because what tourist would even think of pushing a bike wearing one!

In the 6 days we’ve been in Kyoto – and the countless times we’ve ridden a bus thru the streets of Gion, I’ve only spotted one gal that I am pretty certain actually was a Geisha. Why? Because her hair was in the traditional style, her kimono was a very conservative cut and design, her posture was comfortable but not silly and she looked like she knew how to walk in her shoes.

Desperate to see more true Geisha, I went at twilight to Pontocho Alley – and found my self face to face with three different Apprentice Geisha – looking for all the world as if they had stepped out of a history book! I was so shocked – I didn’t take pictures! Silly me. But they were very cool, and very in a hurry to get where they were going.

Overall, I’ve spotted lots of woman that I’m sure were wearing Kimono because it was comfortable and attractive – some of them were attending a festival at one of the shrines we visited, and were invited into the inner sanctum, others were in the stands at the Aoi Festival, but looked comfortable, not stilly, and still others were just riding the bus or visiting a museum or a garden with us.

So while you are far more likely to spot faux kimono wearing tourist than real kimono wearing ladies and gentleman, if you know what to look for – at least you can be sure when you are lucky enough to see the real thing.

And a lovely thing it is!

Signing off the visit more temples and shrines – there appearing to be no end to these in Kyoto – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Nijo Castle – Negative Reviews aside – it’s totally worth a visit


Sometimes I wonder if folks who write those negative reviews have even been to the same places I’ve been. It’s a puzzlement, for sure.

For example – Nijo Castle, one of the most important historical buildings in Japan, got beaten up pretty badly by 2 different reviewers on Trip Advisor. And I can’t even begin to understand why.

The first reviewer belly ached about having to take off their shoes, and how horrid it was to walk barefoot where other folks have been putting their smelly feet. Hello dear reviewer – did you not read up at all about Japan before you came for a visit? Taking off your shoes is the absolutely in thing here. Everyone takes off their shoes to enter most important places – whether they are shrines, temples, historical momuments, or even folks homes. So get over it! And if you really don’t want to put your bare feet on their floors – carry socks! Seriously. How can you tell folks a place as important as Nijo Castle isn’t worth visiting because you didn’t carry socks with you.

The other complaint was about the use of restorations instead of the original painted sliding doors. Again – what was this reviewer thinking. This place is 400 years old – and it’s completely open to the environment. Why would they ever leave 400 year old painted wood sliding doors up in such a location. Be glad that they replaced them with the most gloriously painted panels – using exactly the same techniques and following the same exact patterns. You can really feel how incredible it must have been to be admitted to such a glorious room while you waited on knees and knuckles for the Shogun to hear your petition. And if you want to see the originals – they are housed in a specially designed building – temperature and humidity controlled – right on the grounds of Nijo Castle.

But my annoyance with lousy reviewers aside – Nijo Castle is well worth paying whatever it costs to visit. It’s amazing. And surprisingly open to visitors. Since it’s no longer in use by the Imperial family, except for very special occasions, tourists are allowed inside the castle itself, not just inside the gardens.

And it’s the inside of the castle that is special. From the famous Nightingale floor that sounds like a thousand birds singing as folks walk around to the marvellously painted shoji screens that divide the space into rooms, this is an amazingly beautiful space.

We particularly loved the thick (over 1 foot thick in fact) carved wooden transoms that created an early form of AC for the rooms. One side was carved with Birds, the other with flowers, and between the carvings, holes allowed air to flow from room to room.

The painted shoji screens are stunning, made even more impressive by the fact that the paintings extended above the doors, almost to the ceilings of each room. The effect was both dramatic, and intimidating. And apparently the intimidation factor was an important component. The Shogun didn’t want anyone getting uppity on him, and there were subtle, and not so subtle ways to keep the powerful lords in their place.

Like the Emperor, the Shogun always sat on a higher floor. And the ceiling above him was also raised to make sure everyone knew who was the most important person in the room. Even the paintings were done to focus eyes on him, and him alone. I loved the sheer audacity of the men who commissioned such work. No wondering about who they thought was boss.

Nijo Castle is not only beautiful, it’s of historic importance. It is here that the first Shogun of the Tokugawa family accepted his commission from the Emperor, and it is here that the 15th and last of that line announced that after 266 years of rule, he was returning authority to the Emperor. It gives me the shivers to think I walked on those same floors.

Just a heads-up on the time required to tour Nijo. It took us at least 3 hours to see the entire castle and all of the gardens. It is a vast area, and you really don’t want to rush through it. We wisely paid a bit extra for the audio tour in English, which combined with the well placed English language explanations provided an excellent and informative view of the entire place. And it’s well worth it to take your time. It’s hard to appreciate how magnificent and detailed the paintings are if you just glance into the rooms.

Folks with a different attitude towards touring rushed past us, hardly spending a moment to glance quickly into the rooms. Given the details on the paintings, birds singing, tigers glaring up and down or nursing their young, we can not fathom how they saw anything – let alone appreciated the incredibly detailed work. Well each to their own I guess.

We finished our day at The Museum of Kyoto, which was having a special exhibit on Ukiyo-e paintings of ‘Beauty’. While the collection in the regular part of the museum is nothing exceptional, the special exhibit was outstanding. We were very intrigued by the 111 painted scrolls – all dating from 1700 – 1850. It’s hard to believe that paper that old can still be in such excellent condition, the colours so vibrant, the details so intricately executed. Of particular interest was the wig collection. Over 70 wigs were used to show the different hairstyles – and labeled in both Japanese and English so that we could see what kind of women were being portrayed. Just an FYI – most of the women were Courtesans, Geisha, or similar. After all, the wife of a nobleman, or even a woman of the middle class would hardly pose for an artist.

This was a very interesting, if very long day. We finally dragged our tired feet home for a well earned dinner and relaxing evening.

Tomorrow is the Aoi Festival – a once a year event that I’m greatly looking forward to seeing.

Signing off to nurse our tired feet back into health, The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Loving Kyoto


Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is civilized, friendly, and easy to navigate. Not that it is easy to navigate, just that its a whole lot easier than Tokyo.

And Kyoto is cheaper. We’ve been running under $10 for lunch, and under $20 for dinner – including either Saki or Wine. How are we doing this – ah ha! We cheat.

Lunch is often at a restaurant, where we’ll share one meal between us. It is just lunch after all. And our new lodgings have a lovely kitchen and dining area. Perfect for cooking in. And that’s what we’ve been doing. Putting together meals from a combination of ready to eat stuff from the grocery store, and stuff we have to microwave or the Intrepid Traveller works her magic and cooks.

Tonight we’re having Edamame for tea time, followed by a mixed Tempura Appetizer and then dinner will be Wine, Rice with a raw egg and a tempura shrimp and onion pie, and mixed cooked vegetables. We even decided on a lovely Caramel thing (we hope it’s Caramel – it’s smelled like Caramel) for dessert. Yum.

Kyoto has been an amazing city to visit. I had pre-organized trips to 3 of the restricted Imperial Palaces – only to discover that they aren’t that restricted – you just need to reserve. Good thing too because I blew it on the dates for 2 of the 3. But I digress. The 3 restricted places we are going are the Sento Imperial Palace, The Katsura Imperial Villa, and the Shugakuin Imperial Villas.

Back 25 years ago, all three of these were only available on guided tours, pre-reserved, by foreigners from outside of Japan. No Japanese was able to see them. Boy have things changed in 25 years. Today there is an office of the Imperial Household Agency located near the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and all anyone, Japanese or Foreign must do is go to the desk and ask about available spaces. If there is space available – you are in!

Because I totally mucked up the dates, this proved to be a godsend. We first toured the Sento Palace and Gardens. This palace is still in use today by the Emperor and his family when they visit Kyoto. Our audio guides explained that the palace has been completely remodeled inside – this means carpets and western furniture. I’m wondering about toilets of course – but I suspect that’s understood to have been done.

Most of the tour consider of viewing the absolutely stunning garden. I want a garden like this. Even a little bit of garden like this. Of course there were 4 gardeners in one tree alone when we were there… so maybe the labor to maintain the garden would be well out of my price range, but still. It was magnificent. And right in downtown Kyoto. I do not understand why it’s not booked solid, but I think the whole – go to the Imperial Household Agency requirement puts people off. In any case – you are alone in the garden, you can pause to reflect and take pictures… it’s wonderful.

Our second tour was the Shugakuin Imperial Villas – and I think they were my favourites. Again – no lines, no crowds, no rushing you thru. And the tickets are free – my kind of price point.

There are actually 3 villas included on the tour – and to me the highlight was how close we could get to the villas. And all the shoji screens were open – so you could see thru to the magnificent views that they were created to showcase. Wandering paths, tinkling water falls, random bridges, glorious plantings, and magnificent moss gardens were there to be savoured. I loved it.

The bad news about the Shugakuin, ignoring my mixup of the dates, is its distance from Kyoto. We had to take a subway and a bus – and then walk. Naturally we got lost on the walk, so a 15 minute walk took 30 minutes – but we did eventually arrive at the Villas. Totally worth it. And the way back to Kyoto proper was much much faster – one bus ride and we were downtown enjoying ‘Kid’s Day’ at one of the major parks.

What a hoot and a half that was. The theme of the ‘fair’ was kid safety – and they had police cars for kids to climb in, big construction equipment that they could push buttons on, a Virtual Reality game that taught you to stop before you hit pedestrians, and a series of the most adorable bike riding courses.

For older kids, there was a biking maze set out with safety cones and policeman signalling directions. For younger kids unable to actually ride a bike, they had those push bikes. Kids mounted them, then either went around in a circle collecting rings from organizers standing on the outside of the circle, or – this was the best part – on a signal they got off the bikes and used special gloves to pop bubbles that the organizers were creating in the zillions.

We loved it and so did the kids.

Today we tried for the Katsura Imperial Villa – but again a date mix-up happened and we discovered it was closed. But all was not lost – we ended up at the Kyoto Aquarium. This is a completely marvellous aquarium, complete with a dolphin show, a seal show that had the young trainers bringing the seals out among the crowd, and a Penguin show. The stunner of the place was right at the entrance. You walk across a virtual tide-pool that ripples under your feet – revealing Giant Japanese Salamanders. These are roughly the size of a 4 year old child – and they are meat eaters. And they are native to the Kamo river that runs thru Kyoto.

I’m so not swimming in that river.

These things are huge – with enormous teeth and extremely ugly. Yuk!

Another highlight was the jellyfish exhibit – all black light and glowing jellyfish floating around in huge tanks.

Speaking of huge tanks – there is a ‘Sea of Kyoto’ Tank that contains Manta Rays, Sharks, and a school of small fish that numbered in the several hundreds. I’m thinking these fish might be the dinner for the seals – but as a school, they created wonderful balls and funnels and odd shapes.

We watched as one of the organizers suited up and dove into the tank – and fed both the fish and the manta rays. I’ve never seen a manta ray eat before – so this was very cool. They have mouths on the bottom, and create a vacuum that sucks any food that passes by into their jaws. So the diver just released the tidbit, and the manta did the rest. It was very cool to watch.

On the way back home, we decided to visit one of Kyoto’s most famous Temples – the Golden Pavilion (also known as Kinkaku-Ji). We’d been warned that it was a mob scene – and figured that hitting the place in the late afternoon might have thinned out the crowds a bit. I think it did to be honest – we were able to get photographs of the Pavilion without having to wait our turn. But compared to the serenity of the other gardens – this place was decidedly unpleasant. I got hit a few times by other tourists trying to get past me in a hurry – one wonders what was the rush, and the number of souvenir stands made it feel tawdry. Worse – we had to pay for the privilege of going in.

Well – I suppose it’s one of the must do things here in Kyoto – but I’m basically glad we crossed it off our list.

We still have a lot more to see and do here in Kyoto – including seeing the Aoi Matsuri Parade, so I’ll be reporting on Kyoto again in a few days.

Meanwhile – I’m the Soup Lady – signing off to help the Intrepid Traveller prepare our dinner. (That means I pour the wine and set the table – she cleverly does the rest).

The road to Koyasan is long – but the Journey is worth it!


I first visited Koyasan (Mt. Koya) with my husband at least 20 years ago, and fell in love with it, so I dearly wanted to show it off to the Intrepid Traveler.

She kindly agreed – so I booked us a Monastery stay for 2 nights and off we went.

The trip from Tokyo to Koyasan is not an easy one – there are subways to take, trains to catch, more subways to use, more trains to catch, and finally a funicular, a bus, and a walk. But in this case, the destination is worth the travel headaches to get there.

Koyasan was established as a place of Buddhist teaching and worship back in 816. Yes – well over 1200 years ago. And it’s been going strong ever since. Everyone in Japan wants to be buried there – and if they can’t – to at least have a monument erected in their honour. It is a place of pilgrimage and for many – a place of power. Certainly it is difficult to describe how unique the feeling of being in Koyasan is – even to the totally uninitiated

Our Monastery – the Yochi-in – was probably the least expensive place to stay in Koyasan – mostly because there were no private toilets. All the washing and bathing areas are still shared, and this keeps the prices low. But that said, we absolutely loved it. The facility is huge, and only a small part of it is devoted to paying guests. We dined on special vegetarian meals in a communal dining area, and prayed together every morning at 6:30. There were sutra copying exercises on offer, and you could pay a bit more and have all the facilities of a proper ryokan – in-room massages, wine or saki with dinner, etc. Being budget travellers – we took the simplest options – but they were wonderful.

Our room was huge, and lovely – yes our beds were futons on the floor, but we had a private balcony with western chairs and a small table overlooking a lovely garden. Quite a change from our lodging in Tokyo. And we loved meeting all the other guests at dinner and breakfast. There were folks from Italy, Holland, Australia, Spain, and France, along with Japanese pilgrims as well.

We had all come for the same reasons – to walk the absolutely stunning graveyard, to pay our respects at the Temple where the founder of Koyasan, the Buddhist Monk Kodo Dashi, is lying in eternal meditation, and to feel the power of what is a completely marvellous place.

In addition to the main highlights, the Intrepid Traveler and I found time to tour the World Headquarters of Shingon Buddhism. This is home to the largest Rock Garden in Japan, and a set of sliding doors used to separate the various rooms from each other that were painted by a master in and around 1000 years ago. They are stunning – and worth contemplating for hours – which of course is what they were designed for.

One of our highlights however was a very small temple off the Main Street that told the story of a man and his son who spent 40 years as monks in this very temple, without the father ever letting the son know of their relationship. He did this to demonstrate his belief in Buddhism – in the denial of self. The story – one of infidelity and the results of that action – was told in a series of wood carvings. Our favourite was the one that shows the wife and the mistress playing an innocent board game while their long black hair has become fighting snakes. Naturally the husband is looking on – and decides it would be best for all if he left to become a Monk.

Eventually, his son by the mistress comes looking for him, but at that point, he’s been a Buddhist for so long, he refuses to identify with his former self, and tells the child that his father had died. When the son returns to Koyasan having discovered his mother has also died and he is now an orphan, it’s too late to undo the white lie, and thus father and son spend 40 years together, without the son ever knowing that his mentor is his actual father.

I know – weird story. But very Japanese I think. And the wood carvings were magnificent.

We loved this visit to Koyasan as much as I loved my last visit – and I will try to return once more. It is a very special kind of place.

Signing off on their way to Kyoto – and a much less relaxed pace – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Travel by Train is so – elegant!


I adore traveling by train. There is something about trains in Canada that is both glorious, relaxing, stunningly beautiful – and elegant. I’m reminded of times gone by when life was lived at a slower pace. When we had time to smell the roses, admire the deer peeking out from among the bushes near the tracks, spot birds – large and small – hidden in trees, and glaze in wonder at the remarkable countryside that is Canada.

Or at least the part of Canada that lies along the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Toronto.

I”m traveling business class – which is roughly the same price as economy air – and totally enjoying the morning out my window of the train. I’ve been welcomed with a smile and ‘can I help you’, been given a quite nice breakfast with lots of hot coffee, and am now just watching the scenery go by.

There is the predictable evidence of severe flooding out my window. This is standard in the ‘lowlands’ in the spring – as the ice and snow melt, and the ground remains frozen below that, there is no where for the water to go. And I suppose that the farmers whose fields I am flying past are well accustomed to this yearly ritual. The rivers are also in ‘flood’ mode – filled to their high banks by water that has to get to the ocean. I’ve never understood why folks persist in buying houses that yearly are in damaged of flooding – but perhaps high risk is it’s own form of adrenaline.

The route from Montreal to Toronto – by train – goes thru low gorges cut into the rocks, and as we near Toronto, will actually run along side the St. Lawrence itself. There are hiking/biking/walking trails visible when we are near towns – but right now I”m in the middle of the ‘wilds’ of Upper Canada. Not actually ‘Upper’ of course – but that’s what they called this part of Canada before they knew just how upper Canada really goes.

My purpose in taking this trip (as differentiated from my reason) is to participate in a Regional Bridge Tournament in Toronto. I actually have a friend from Alabama who drove 4 days to meet and play with me in Toronto. I really hope that I don’t disappoint her! My Reason however was to enjoy the elegance of train travel.

I do love being on the train. Canada is a remarkably clean country, as viewed thru train windows. In comparison to what we saw from the train in South Africa – we are spotless. Even homes that might be considered worthy of a de-clutter are clean and neat in comparison to the horrors I saw out of the train windows going from Pretoria to Cape town. We here in Canada really have no idea how blessed we are.

But back to the elegance of train travel. There is something – well – Harry Pottersque about this trip. I feel like I’m heading to a new adventure – and that getting there is half the thrill. A gaggle of wild Turkeys just fled from our noisy passing, and I’ve seen plenty of Canada Geese stopping over on their way further North. And there was a deer grazing in the bushes near the tracks that watched our passing with suspicion. I haven’t spotted any Eagles yet, but there have been Hawks sitting proudly on top of trees with they eyes searching for rabbits or mice stupid enough to make a dash for it out of their burrows.

And we pass homes and condos and Solar Fields aplenty. This part of Canada varies from the barely cultivated to the intensely inhabited. As we are now approaching Kingston, the ratio between untamed and highly cultivated and well built is moving towards the inhabited. I”m reminded of train trips I took in England where everywhere was highly inhabited – and there was no ‘untamed’ left. This isn’t the truth in Canada of course. While real estate values skyrocket in the ‘cities’ – in the countryside one can still imagine land being given away from basically free.

I do wonder about the lack of Blue Hoses. For those who don’t know – blue hoses are the way Maple Sap is pulled from Maple trees these days – suctioned to the Sugar Houses, then boiled to create that signature Quebec Product – Maple Syrup. But along this section of Canada there is a distinct lack of Maple Groves. I suppose a person more knowledgeable about these things than I could explain it. I’m guessing we’re talking a climate difference that makes the area around Montreal prime Maple country – and keeps the Maple trees at bay here in Southern Ontario.

The train whistle blows, a train going the other way flies past, the other passengers chat – and time slowly passes. Soon enough we will be in Toronto, but meanwhile I’m going to relax and let the world pass me by.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

Where are you in the Global Economy?


Ok – I know – strange question from an admittedly old Grannie living in Canada – but I went to a ‘Chat Up’ at my local Theatre company yesterday, and the play they were discussing was ‘Shoplifters’ by Morris Panych. And during the discussion, the question of where we fit in the Global Economy came up.

I want to start with an awesome link – Are you in the Global Middle Class – published by the Washington Post in January 2019. So it’s up to date – and seriously interesting. You can quickly determine where an income of say – $59,000 US would put you relative to almost every country in the world. For those of us in Canada – who struggle with outrageous taxes – trust me, this is an eye opener.

Check it out.

Shoplifters is a very funny, very understandable, very mental challenging play about 4 people – 2 security guards, and 2 ‘shoplifters’. The guards are male, the shoplifters female, and the crime obvious. But how they deal with the crime – not so obvious. It is clear from the very beginning that none of these 4 people are in the upper class. And as the play proceeds – it is made clear that none of them are in the middle class either. So the question arises, what exactly is the ‘crime’?

While morally I can’t condone shoplifting, I think it just makes the prices higher for the rest of us, it is hard to avoid appreciating the protagonists point of view. As one of the security guards admit – I’ve never had a steak that good! And all 4 of them, as are most of us as well, are primary concerned about personally doing better. How to ‘do better’ is of course the real question. Is being a coat check girl for the rest of your life really ‘living’? Alma, the older and more experienced shoplifter, argues that this is not living. And I’m thinking that the folks in the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ group would agree with her.

We all want the very best for our kids and grand-kids. That goes without saying. Would I want them to think that shoplifting was ok if they couldn’t afford anything better? Or would I want them to try to find a way to afford that something better? I naturally think I’d go for the latter, but so far I haven’t really been faced with that choice.

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t afford steak. I could only afford a box of Mac and Cheese for dinner every night. But I always knew that this time would end – and maybe that optimism is what kept me from shoplifting. I don’t know for sure, one way or the other.

Bottom line – this is a great play – do try to see it when it shows up in a local theatre near you. And do check out that website. See if you in the global middle class – and where you fit in your local economy as well. Then consider the folks below you. How do they make ends meet?

Signing off to write another blog – about another topic discussed at that Chat Up – The Soup Lady

PS: if you follow my travels – my next trip with the Intrepid Traveller is to Japan – so if you’ve wonder if a low cost trip to one of the world most expensive countries is possible – stay tuned!

The Saroche – Luxury has a price!


I’m aboard the 39 meter (127 foot) long barge – the Saroche. And I honestly – I’ve think I’ve landed in the lap of luxury.

The service on the barge is so personal, and so fast that I’m reminded of Goldie Hawn’s line when her butler brings her Cavier in the film ‘Overboard’, “Thank goodness, I almost had to wait”.

This is definitely not your budget holiday trip, but then sometimes it’s fun to be different. We opted for this cruise for several reasons, and it is interesting how close and yet not close it came to matching our expectations.

I should start by explaining that this is not really a cruise. It’s really a barge trip down a series of canals in the Champagne Region of France – the Marne Valley to be exact. And where our expectations and the reality have diverged is really in the Champagne Touring. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

The Saroche is an absolutely lovely boat – low and long, she was purpose built to be a ‘hotel’ barge, and while her history diverted from that at times, it is her basic design. The front of the barge, under the deck where there sits a large Hot Tub, a dining area, and a lounge area, are just three staterooms. This is a trip for a max of 6 passengers – and with 4 crew, it’s easy to imagine why the service is so completely personal. And we are just 4 passengers – one of the couples had to cancel at the last moment, leaving Jason, our host, unable to fill that slot.

Our cabins are glorious. Dawn and Jason spent last winter completely remodeling the cabins – and they now reflect the Art Deco/Art Nouveau theme that Dawn thought would be appealing. Light wood, poster art from 1930, and huge beds and equally large bathrooms make the cabins a haven. I’m particularly fond of the shower in the our bathroom – it has both a rain shower and a hand shower, and plenty of nice hot water. Perfect.

The main cabin, which has the spiral staircase to the upper deck, a large lounge area with a full open bar, two sofas, and a game/library cabinet is quite comfortable. The focus however is on the dining area. Here Dawn with the help of the crew (Sarah, Luther, and occasionally Jason) serves up delightful 4 course meals for lunch and dinner. I’ve never eaten so well, or so often, in my life! Wine glasses are never allowed to be empty, and once they figure out your preference (I love hot water if the weather is nippy), they are fast to be sure that your need is met, before you even have time to think about needing it. “I almost had to wait…”

There is simply nothing that I can say about the food that wouldn’t sound like I’d been drinking the Koolaide. It is outstanding. Jason does his very best to match the food with wines from Vineyards in France, but with less absolute success. His pairings tend to be young wines, and their lack of maturity is often a flaw. But this is a minor quibble. This cruise is not about fine wines (albeit that there were some outstanding wines opened and enjoyed) – it’s about knowledgeable pairings – and in that Jason excels.

The cheese courses are a case in marvellous point. We have a cheese course twice a day for 6 days. And Jason does not repeat a cheese. I will admit that there were cheeses that I could die for (the Comte he served us was the best I’ve ever had), and cheeses I didn’t try (I’m not keen on the Blue Cheeses, and I can’t eat cheese made with goat’s milk, it makes my throat swell), but all in all, the cheese course and the wine pairings that with them were legendary.

Jason did promise us a list of the cheeses and wines – I’m sure it will come by email in a few days – but even holding a list I doubt I could duplicate the experience. The kitchen has a built-in cheese store, so that they are served at the right temperatures – something that has always given me trouble at home.

Each night finds us moored at a different location along the Marne Valley Canal system, enjoying a late dinner. Each morning finds us either moving at a snail’s pace down a canal or through a lock, or sometimes taking a day trip into the surrounding area.

While I loved the relaxed pace of the cruises – not really a snail’s pace as much as a walking pace – it was the side trips that I found truly interesting.

We visited a little known battlefield from World War I – La Main de Massiges. This labyrinth of trenches laid buried for years until it was unearthed and an association started (only in 2008) to keep it open, accessible, and properly signed. For an in-depth description of the place (in French – sorry) – do click here. Our visit was made even more interesting by about 20 WWI re-enactors who were there to film a movie about the involvement of soldiers from the Czech Republic. It was unworldly to walk thru the trenches, knowing that just around any corner one might run into soldiers doing their level best to be period correct.

For me, as much as I dislike visiting battlefields in general, this visit was a highlight.

Another outstanding exploration was to the Eisenhower War Rooms – a small museum in Reims that was the actual site where the treaty ending WWII was signed. It was signed again the next day in Berlin because the Russians wanted it to be officially signed there – but here in this tiny room, in this now lovely town – but at the time heavily bombed battlefield – the treaty was signed. It is hard not to find the room strangely inspiring, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the then movers and shakers gathering to end the war.

I also loved the visit to chocolatier Thibault. It’s a lot of fun to make praline filled chocolate champagne corks – although the very best part was the wrapping machine. I’m such a techy! I really loved the tasting as well – there’s is simply nothing wrong with chocolate – particularly good chocolate.

Bottom line – I loved aspects of our cruise. I enjoyed the company of our new friends, I totally relaxed in the hot tub in the afternoons as the glorious scenery glided by, and I ate way to well, and way to much. I think for me, a week of ‘relaxing’ is too long. I was itching to get going again, but that’s a personal problem. And I definitely think that Dawn, Jason, and their crew deliver on their promise – you are indeed in the lap of luxury for a week.

Signing off to enjoy Museum Night in Paris – Muse d’Orsey here I come! The Soup Lady.

Students Party HARD in Coimbra


We either lucked into an amazing party – or got kicked in the butt by one! It’s a bit hard to tell right now – but I shall let you decide.

We planed on visiting Coimbra to see the National Museum there, and to visit the University. We didn’t plan on coming on Graduation Week – but that’s exactly what we did. And man, do those students know how to party.

There are thousands and thousands of students at Coimbra University – it’s the largest in Portugal, the best known, and the most respected. And it’s a university town – there’s nothing but students here – and on grad week – their parents.

Students normally dress in black pants, white blouses, and have coloured ribbons that indicate their school of study. Yellow = Med School, Blue = Liberal Arts, Red = Law, etc. But during Grad week, they kick it up a serious notch. Students getting advanced degrees wear top hats and frock coats with lapels in the colour of their discipline – and if they are a dual major (law and say Literature) they wear two colours – Red and blue in this case. And they carry walking canes that match. Students with canes – now that’s going to get interesting.. fast. They have a lovely tradition though – if one grad student meets another – the first takes their cane and knocks 3 times on the top hat of the other one – then they hug (boys) or kiss (girls) and wish each other good luck!

We chatted up several of the students, participated in the hat knocking – and traded kisses and hugs! It’s fun.

The 2nd tradition we witnessed concerns beer. Not like students need a special occasion to drink beer – but Coimbra Students have taken beer drinking to an insane level. It’s not just quantity, it’s about shaking the can and spraying everyone you possibly can! I don’t mind the pouring of beer on heads (as long as they don’t do it to me), and I don’t mind the shaking and spraying – but there were kids with water pistols filled with beer! That’s taking beer spraying to a completely new level.

And of course they know they are going to get totally soaked – so they all carry around their necks a plastic pouch that features those discipline colours – and holds their cells phones, a bit of money, and I’m hoping an ID!

Yet another tradition we witnessed were the floats. These have been decorated by each discipline, and they of course feature the colours. They are also loaded up with the graduating undergrads – who have wrapped themselves in ribbons of matching colours. Most of the girls had the ribbons in their hair. I leave it to your imagination to figure out what the boys were doing with them.

Undergrads also wear capes! Since it was hot on the day we visited, the capes were rolled into long tubes, and slung over their shoulders and tied around their waists. Some capes were blazed with badges – but I never found out what the meaning to the badges were – it was rare to see the emblazoned ones – most were – as one student told me – Harry Potter Capes!

There is a tradition that we didn’t see, but read about. Apparently at the end of Grad Week, all the ribbons are burned in a frantic release of energy! Given the number of ribbons we saw, I’m guessing this is a pretty massive bonfire.

Students we chatted up told us that there is a heady feeling of belonging in Coimbra – that grads come back year after year for this party – and I’m not surprised. It was intense.

After the parade of the floats – there is a rock concert in the Coimbra Stadium – and that’s where we ran into trouble. I don’t mind Rock music – I love it in fact — but our absolutely lovely BnB faced right onto the Stadium – and the noise of the concert was beyond belief. And it lasted for hours… Ending sometime after 4:00 AM.

So – good news – we got to see the party. Bad news – no sleep!

Good thing we’re leaving Coimbra today – we didn’t get to see the Museum (it was closed on Grad Week), and we didn’t get to tour the University – I wasn’t going up that hill twice. But we did get to witness Grad Week – up close and personal.

Signing off to get some sleep before we travel… The Soup Lady

The Toilets of Portugal


I’m fascinated by toilets. It’s true. I seem to spend hours in them – so I’m very aware of the good, the bad – and the oh I’m so sorry I needed this one – ones.

Here in Portugal, we haven’t seen any that compete with the hole in the floor, pig underneath one in China, but we have been treated to some pretty odd experiences.

First off – bidets are alive and well, and living in Portugal. The first time I saw one – I thought, well – no one has renovated for a while. But now I’ve seen them several times, so it’s clearly considered a plus. Not a useful plus of course – but something to have. Personally, I’m a fan of the Japanese version – one piece seat that washes and drys you by pushing buttons – but if the bathroom is large enough for a separate porcelain bowl, who am I to argue.

Lights in bathrooms however seem to be optional. I’ve not had as many disasters on this issue as my husband, who reports having to leave the door to the toilet ajar at least 3 times in order to be sure he’s using the toilet – and not the bidet! I’m guessing burnt out bulbs are the cause, I mean they didn’t deliberately not put in a light, right? But I have noted that motion sensitive lights are popular. Maybe men move less than ladies?

Drying your hands is, it appears, optional. Some bathrooms provide a towel – which after a few dozen guests gets looking pretty gross. Some bathrooms go the US and Canadian root of having blow dryers, and my favourite bathrooms offer both a blow dryer and paper towels. Once so far this trip I used a bathroom with folded hand towels – it was that up scale. This particular toilet was in a restaurant called “Roi dos Leitos” – King of Pork, and it was easily the nicest one we’ve seen so far. I loved the lighted buttons for flushing – so upscale…

Toilets in Portugal are consistently short. Seriously – what happened to comfort height, huh? Falling down to those low toilets is hard enough – getting back up requires serious leg muscles – and a lot of umph.

But here’s my biggest complaint about the toilets of Portugal. Several times now I’ve gone into a public toilet to discover that the toilet seat is missing. Where do they take them? And why would they take them? How odd is that. Is it done for hygiene? Is it that dangerous to sit on a toilet seat? I don’t know – but I can tell you that sitting on a porcelain rim is definitely hard on the bum.

One toilet I went into had the seat up. When I went to lower it – it fell off and landed on the floor. How embarrassing! I had to pick it up, clean it off – and then put it back in place. It was still broken of course – but at least it was in the right location.

What we have not run into are the truly fancy toilets I’ve seen elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France. Toilets in Portugal, even in nice hotels, tend to the practical. Toilets in BnB’s can be better or worse than average – and we’ve seen both.

In one BnB the bathroom was so tiny that you could not sit on the toilet and have your legs in front of you. There was simply not enough room. You had to sit on the toilet sidewise.

Worst Toilet so far? In a crummy mall in Lisbon. Dirty, no toilet paper, no toilet seat, and no way to dry your hands. I’m being picky though – there’s no toilet here that compares to the some of the ones I saw in Asia – but still. This is Europe. Surely toilets are a basic necessity- is it so hard to keep them clean. And where did they put those missing toilet seats?

But enough Toilet experiences – I’m signing off to think of something else to write about… The Soup Lady

Coolest Milking Machine Ever


I know – I’m jumping around – but this machine was amazing.

I’m actually in France (my blog posts are a bit behind) and by accident – pure accident – we visited a dairy farm here in the Champagne Area of France.

Driving back from visiting a battle field (more on that later), I spotted a field of white plastic. I’d never seen anything like it before – so I asked our lovely driver Jason (you’ll learn more about Jason later) if he could get us closer. Since it is Asparagus season here in France, I figured they were growing white Asparagus – and I’d never seen it. He kindly drove off the road, down what should only be driven by a 4 wheel drive tractor, and we ended up right along side this giant area planted with white plastic

Under the plastic was what appeared to be corn – not asparagus. Hmm. What actually is this? Why would any farmer cover corn with plastic? But it sure looked like corn. Definitely puzzled, we exited the tractor path, and turned right, back towards the main room and the farm. As we passed the farm – I spotted the farmer – and suggested (ok – maybe I kinda made it a strong request) that we stop and ask.

Again – Jason kindly followed my advice, and stopped. He got out, and an animated conversation occurred. Ending with an invite by the farmer to come and see something amazing.

Translating – Jason explains that yes – it is corn, and yes – it’s under plastic. The plastic is bio-degradable, and protects the corn when it is young. The soil here in this area of France is perfect for growing wine, but not so great for growing corn. Not enough moisture, too much hot sun. So the farmer has been using this special plastic for years. It keeps the moisture on/around the young plants, and as they grow, it degrades into the soil without impact. Good for the corn, easy on the farmer! He then uses it to feed his herd of 75 diary cows all winter.

But what he wants to show us is not how he puts down the plastic – it is how he milks the cows! As we walk towards the milking room – he tells us that he runs his farm – 250 to 350 acres of land plus 75 diary cows by himself with his wife and 18 year old son. And he has enough spare time to be the regional mayor. How does he do this… Well – come and see.

The five of us get out of the car, and walk into the milking area to see – a Robot. A Milking Robot. In fact – even feeding the cows is done by Robots. This is a farm of the future.

Every cow wears two transponders in their ears. The information in the transponders tells the Robot the size of the cow, the location of the udders, the time the cow last went to the feed lot, the time the cow was last milked, the quality of the milk the cow last produced, and the quantity!

When the cow feels like being milked, the cow gets up, and walks herself into the milking station. If she’s due to be milked (only once every 5.5 hours or more), the machine lets her stay in the milking station, closes the front door to hold her in place, puts some high protein feed pellets into a dish for her to enjoy while being milked, and then the robot springs into life. It already knows the size of the cow, so it just has to locate the teats on the udder, and then it sanitizes them and places the milking tubes onto the teats.

This is done by laser. The robot arm moves up and down and around the udder – finding the teats, washing them, and finally – using the milking tubes, milks the cow! And the cow looks like she enjoys it! She certainly seemed happy to walk in – and just as happily walks out again when the robot judges the milking complete. The milk is then tested for quality – and quantity, recorded for the next time, and routed either into the holding tank for pick-up, or if not judged good enough, re-routed for feeding the baby cows.

What about feeding the cows? In the same area is a large (cow sized) gate. A different robot scans the transponder on the cow, and decides if the cow should be fed, or should be milked. If the cow should be fed – the gate to the feed lot opens, and the cow continues her merry way. If she is due for milking, the gate doesn’t open, and the cow – on her own – realizes that she needs to get milked first. So she toddles over to the milking robot. Once that’s done – she walks herself into the feed lot (and the gate knows to open).

It’s an almost totally human free dairy farm. The farmer explains that if something goes wrong, he is notified by cell phone to come and fix it.

He also explains that it takes about 3 days for a ‘new’ cow to get measured by the robot, and used to the process. It easier with the cows he raises, but even if he has to buy a cow, the process is much faster and much easier on the cows than you can imagine.

He tells us that the cows are so much happier with this new system. And happy cows make better (and more) milk.

And his life is amazingly easier. He doesn’t have to come every day at 6:00 AM to do the first round of milking, he doesn’t even have to come to the farm all day if he wants. He still has the mucking out to do – but even most of that has been automated. When the cow is in the milking machine, any ‘waste’ is captured by underground tanks, to be recycled as appropriate. All the cow pies are dried and used for bedding for the cows (they are totally vegetarian remember), the urine is separated, and don’t bother asking – I have no idea what happens to it!

We stayed long enough to watch two cows decide it was time to get milked – one of whom tried to get fed first, so we even saw her refused by the feed gate.

The farmer and his wife even explain the basics of dairy herd management to us – Cows have to get pregnant to keep lactating, he sells the male offspring at 14 days to farms that raise meat cattle, and keeps the female offspring until they go into heat to see if they will make good dairy cows. About 30% of his herd is either too young, pregnant or just having given birth to be milked. That brings him down to the 60 or so cows that his one robot can handle in one day.

We are completely amazed – and of course I had to look up Robot Milking Machines on google – here’s a link that’s very interesting, and surprisingly up to date:

Robotic Milking Machines Explained

Signing off to have a cafe au Lait – with a deeper appreciation of where my milk comes from – The Soup Lady