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).

Why don’t folks go to the Theatre?


Not a trivial question is it. Why do you go to the Theatre? Do you go to the Theatre? And before you say yes too quickly – when was the last time you were in a legitimate Theatre – one with live actors and a real audience. Not on line, not a movie. A Theatre.

This question was asked – and the gal who asked it tried to answer it – at a ‘Chat Up’ at my local Theatre company. The price for the ‘Chat Up’ was right by the way – it was free, it was on Sunday starting at noon, there were comfortable seats – and they supplied coffee and biscotti. So while not a feast – it was an interesting hour and a half. And full. Because it turns out that both of the performances that afternoon – ‘Shoplifters’ and ’27’ were sold out.

The ‘Chat Up’ was a live interview between the Editor in Chief of the Gazette (arguably Montreal’s top English Newspapers) and a Francophone Professor of Social Media from the University of Montreal. The Professor also was involved in getting folks from the Eastern side of Montreal to come to the theatre – and briefly argued that they don’t come because they are afraid that their clothes aren’t good enough.

I beg to differ here. I don’t think the issue is clothing. I wear jeans everywhere, to the Opera, to the Theatre, to fancy restaurants, and I’ve never been turned away. I’ve seen folks in all manner of dress at the Theatre’s that the Intrepid Traveler and I frequent – and no one has ever been turned away there either. I don’t think it’s the dress code – because there isn’t one!

I think folks don’t go to the ‘legitimate Theatre’ because they can’t see how it’s relevant to their lives. It’s perceived as expensive, it’s seen as potentially boring, and it’s not always marketed as well as more ‘crowd pleasing’ options like the Cirque, Football, Soccer matches, or even Tennis. Shopping centres have done a better job of marketing than Theatres (Other than Place Des Arts) here in Montreal have done. And the ‘fringe’ events – which are often seriously cheap and quite entertaining, often have no marketing at all. If you don’t get their emails, and keep your eyes open for brief mentions here and there – the productions come and go before most folks have a chance to react!

This said – this weekend I was at two different theatre events – a production of the ‘new’ Opera 27 about the life of Gertrude Stein, and of course ‘Shoplifters’ – the play that was the nominal topic of the ‘Chat Up’. I had brought my 11 year old grand-daughter with me to see the play, and even though this was a 2:00 PM show on Sunday – when bringing young adults would seem a reasonable choice, my grand-daughter was the only person under the age of 30 there.

So one anecdotal observation that might address the basic question would be – kids are not being exposed to the Theatre. Whose fault is that? Are parents not bringing their kids because they are too busy themselves to come? Because they don’t know if the kids will like the play and don’t want to have to put up with fidgeting kids? Because they can’t afford it? I paid full price for my grand-daughter – a not insignificant investment to be honest. And a lot more than the cost of taking her to a movie, or to a swimming pool, or to even a bowling alley (do they even still exist?).

But I suspect that money is not the only explanation. I’ve often offered my children free tickets to the theatre – but unless it’s a musical and clearly on a topic of interest – they are unlikely to accept. Even my telling them that this play is a must see probably won’t bring them out. This despite the fact that my grand-daughter asked if she could go see it again! I’m of half a mind to arrange that for her. If I can’t change the opinions of my kids – can I make things better for my grandkids? I hope so.

I am blessed by my friendship with the Intrepid Traveler. She will go to theatre at the drop of a hat – and is my frequent companion. And far to often it’s her that spots the options – and invites me than the other way around. But my attempts to get other folks to join us generally falls flat. Even the offer of free tickets and a free ride down and back (I get it – night travel can be scary for seniors) hasn’t gotten them to budge.

I ran into the same issue on the bridge cruise. All the ‘shows’ were free – but attempts to get folks to join me at Mamma Mia or the Comedy Shows were rebuffed. Maybe it’s me?

My buddies opted to stay in their cabins – they wouldn’t go for free, dress on a ship is irrelevant – trust me – so that’s not an excuse, and these were not mentally challenging theatre options. So why won’t people go? It’s not the price, it’s not the dress code – what is it?

Why do thousands of folks play bridge on line, and not show up at play?

And what can I, one lonely senior trying her best to keep live theatre alive, to do about it.

Another scary statistic – 40% of folks in Quebec live alone. I’d think getting out of the house would be a huge priority – and yet – they are definitely not coming out to the live Theatre.

Musing in solitaire – 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!

Party Central at the Toronto Pride Parade


I’m a tad conservative – I’m not talking political, I’m talking life style. Husband, kids, house, grandkids – conservative lifestyle, conservative dress – you wouldn’t think from looking at me today that there was a flower child in my past. And the honest truth is that there wasn’t. I was in University during that period in history – but I spent that time studing physics and computer science, not marching from rights at every opportunity.

Color me conservative.

So you can also color me surprised to discover that I’d managed to decide to visit Toronto during Pride Week. This is a massively important week for Toronto, if the sheer number of rainbow flags, wall hangings, designs, and posters is any measure. I don’t think it would be possible to ignore the fact that it was Pride week anywhere in Toronto, but my sisters and I had managed to reserve ourselves a VRBO rental right in the heart of the Gay Village. No way we were going to be ignoring the festivities. Much to our surprise, we were part of them!

Hot Spot Central for Pride events is Church Street near Bloor – and we were just 2 very short blocks away on Mutual Street. We couldn’t have asked for a better location if we’d realized what we were signing up for. Church Street is party central, and we were just far enough away to avoid the noise – and close enough to have to walk thru it every time we ventured out.

We arrived in Toronto on Thursday, navigated our way to our lodgings, and quickly realized that something was happening. The unmistakable signs of a huge street fair being set up were everywhere. Tents being dropped off, boxes and boxes of supplies being unloaded, and giant marquess being set-up at all the major street corners were just some of the more obvious hints. And to say that folks were dressed – well – distinctively – would be an understatement. Clearly, something big was happening, and it didn’t take us long to put it all together. Of course – Pride Week – with the huge Pride Parade (over 3 million people (apx?) attended in 2017) was happening on Sunday.

By Saturday, things were in high swing. The street closures started at Bloor and Church and extended for blocks and blocks – well past where we were and only petering out at around Gerrad Street. Even the local Loblaws – a super Loblaws with both an upstairs and a downstairs was in on the act. An entire section of the grocery store was getting a quick redesign as a dance floor – with a DJ of course. Folks were handing out free drink samples at both entrances – Some kind of Lemon/Lime Coke at one door, and a fru-fru water at the other. Nothing like shopping to head-banging noise…

The hundreds of stalls set up along Church were definitely an eclectic group. From Light your Dick (selling penis shaped candles), to a wooden watch display whose 6’2” salesman wore high heels and a sequinned top, to a pose yourself in a bathtub photo opp – there were stalls the likes of which I’ve never seen before.

The lower portion of the parade route was devoted to more community oriented stalls of the likes of Save Water (handing out free metal water bottles), Pet Rescue (with their doggy mascot in his wheel chair), and a huge 2 floor bar/DJ set-up sponsored (yes I asked) by the largest Pot growing company in Canada. Nope – no free samples there!

My sisters and I wandered up and down the street – many times with our jaws dropped open in surprise at the clothing choices of some of our fellow revellers.

There were drag queens galore – some young, some definitely not so young. One of my favourites was wearing a dashing ballon headdress – and not much else. There were men – at least a dozen in my best count – sporting the full Monty. They had on rings that were strategically placed – I never did figure out why, but if you need to know – ask a guy. Leather strips formed a lot of the clothing options, as did push up bras, corsets, and tatoos. For some reason – lots of guys were wearing dog masks – mostly of the German Shepard variety – and being lead around on chains by either other men, or young woman. I will leave to the reader’s mind to figure out what they were doing. There was a Goth Statue of Liberty, a guy wearing ‘grapes’ (I think he was from a wine store), and lots of belly buttons (and other parts) on display.

And the noise – oh my – the noise. Every major street corner had a DJ booth and dance floor set-up. Some were massive 3 story affairs with light shows. Other’s were a bit more subtle – but not by much. One booth was playing a wild rendition of YMCA as we struggled past, but most were the more popular younger music that I can barely recognize as music. It’s mostly base noise, with a hint of melody.

And this party lasts, lasts, and lasts. It started warming up around noon on Saturday, and only slowed down a bit when it rained late Saturday night. On Sunday morning they began gearing up for the main event – the Pride Parade, but we opted to avoid both the rain and the crowds by heading towards the Royal Ontario Museum. This kept us dry and relatively sane. We let the crowds of Pride Parade Goers do their thing with out us. There is only so much Full Monty I need to see in my life.

Would I go back to Toronto for Pride Parade? Nope. Been there, saw that – I’m done. Would I suggest you check it out? Sure! It was eye-opening for sure.

Signing off to go back to her conservative life-style…

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.

The Ins and Outs of Lisboa (Lisbon)


Truthfully – this ought to be entitled the ups and downs of Lisbon. I’ve never ever been in a city where there were quite so many hills. And sometimes there are hills on hills – so you go up and then down and then up. Then it’s down again, no – up.

Even on our tiny street there are both up, down and flat sections, and our AirBnB is built into the side of a down slope – so while we enter on the flat – and walk straight into the bedroom (except for the dodge around the down staircase), the bedroom is hanging at least 20 feet above the garden in the back. That’s a lot of vertical drop in just 20 feet of so. And it’s fairly typical. Every where we went there were hills – some seriously steep (45 degree angle maybe), and some just – well – hilly for the sake of being hills. We even found alleyways with stair rails, to help folks navigate the paths when it rains and the stones get very very slippery.

Victor’s hip is getting quite the work out here, and our plans really aren’t very extensive. We aren’t planing on any museums, or even any touring. Our goal is to relax, eat, and leave.

Naturally – I’m not that keen on the do nothing idea, and convince Victor to spend at least one day touring Lisbon. I’d heard that the area near the Castle of Sao Jorge is very interesting, and that riding the ‘tourist’ trolley is fun. We pick one day to do both, and it’s ok as an adventure. Getting onto the trolley isn’t easy, there are lines of tourists everywhere, and Victor is a gentleman. He quickly gives up his seat to ladies who board the trolly after us (He’s the only guy that does – all the rest just pretend not to notice that there are ladies standing in the aisles). But this means that he’s standing for the entire ride – can’t enjoy the view, and of course he’s in pain.

We get off the trolley, walk – up hill – thru the area where Fado- the music of Lisbon- originated, and finally arrive at the castle. The mob scene that greets us is incredible. There are tourists and shops selling tourist junk everywhere. Victor announces that he’s not waiting in lines like that to see a Castle, and after spending at least an hour and half just to get up the hill, we promptly walk back down and out the Castle Gates.

Not only is the touring not going well, with the minor exception of those lovely egg custard tarts (Nata Tarts), and a few restaurants that we’ve lucked into like the Suckling Pig and the Seafood Restaurant, generally food here in Portugal has been disappointing. So not great food, iffy weather, and hills – Lisbon is not putting on her pretty face for us.

Victor decides that out annoyance with the food is due to the nature of Portuguese food – it’s comfort food at the end of a long working day, not elegant cuisine. And in Lisbon, this has turned out to be quite true. Our best meals were either Italian (Ill Covo) or the simplest of local grilled chicken and steak places. I must admit that I love the Cafe aux Lait that I’ve been enjoying every morning, and there’s a lovely pastry shop near our AirBnB that offers great toasted almond pies that I simply adore. Victor’s needs for breakfast are much simpler, he just goes for coffee – so the fact that the quality of the pastry is extraordinary doesn’t do much to impress him.

I do find one winner of a museum/touring location – the Palace of Queluz. It’s highly reviewed in Tripadvisor, and when we get there, uncrowded. And to boot – it’s been frozen in time to 1807 – when the Portuguese Royal Family left Lisbon for Brazil out of fear of the fast approaching armies of Napoleon. They packed up everything in the castle – spent the next 14 years in Brazil, and then when things had stabilized in Europe after Napoleon’s exile to St. Helena, came back with boats filled with all the stuff they had taken when they left.

So the current Palace absolutely dates from our period in history – and is perfect. The excellent audio tour, coupled with great signage in English makes it easy to tour the Palace and it’s glorious gardens. We spend almost 1/2 a day here – and think it a highlight of our visit to Lisbon. In a modern part that has been added on is an Equestrian Library – and there are books dating back 200 years on how to do Calvary movements. Victor is thrilled – and I admit to thinking the Palace is quite quite lovely.

Our day ends with an OK dinner – I think we are going to officially give up on trying to find upscale Portuguese cuisine and another late night. When dinner starts at 8:00 – and takes 3 hours – well, you do the math. You are not getting to bed early – that’s for sure.

Our last day in Lisbon arrives, and honestly, we’re kinda glad to go. We did do a bit of fun shopping, I found a lovely lace store and have more treasures to give my dressmaker, and we toured – but didn’t buy anything – in a kitchen shop of chefs. I think we should have gotten one of the lovely copper pots that are so popular here – but we remember that we are downsizing, and while copper looks good, it does require cleaning.

Our Uber trip to the airport goes flawlessly – and costs only 10 Euros. Quite the deal after the 25 Euros it took to get from the airport to our Air BnB after we dropped off the car. I’m positive he went the wrong way, but what can you do. We fly from Lisbon to Paris in one of those inexpensive flights, and Uber into Paris for the night.

Our lodging in Paris is a darling 2 star hotel called the Londres St. Honore and it’s right near the Louvre. I know what I’m doing tomorrow – I’m going to the Museum.

Bed at last – Tomorrow we will ‘Musee’, then get picked up to start our Champagne Cruise. Signing off in hopes of a good nights sleep… The Soup Lady

Sintra – The Tourist Capital of Portugal


Up till now, our journey has been delightfully free of crowds – but that changes drastically when we arrive in Sintra.

There are bus loads of tourists everywhere! And the sizes of the tiny streets are just not up to this kind of congestion. In an attempt to deal with the onslaught, the city fathers have made almost all the streets of Sintra one way – and driving thru the maze of city streets packed with cars, tourists, and the occasional local is daunting.

Victor does a wonderful job of it however, and we manage not to get divorced en-route. I can’t say that we escaped without a bit of yelling at each other – including my finally screaming – JUST PARK THERE!

Our resting place is a legal, albeit heading the wrong way space, quite close in fact to the National Palace of Sintra, our destination. Victor’s hip (not the artificial one) has been bothering him this trip – and I’m sensitive to the fact that walking up and down hills isn’t comfortable for him. So I’m thrilled we found a parking spot that won’t require miles of hiking, and more than will to pay the price for it – if we can find a parking meter!

We search right and left for something that explains how to pay for parking, and finally decide that maybe it’s not required. Strange, but I’m willing to believe anything some mornings.

Fortunately, our walk to the castle takes us right by a meter – and they don’t need your space ID – they need your license #. Whew! We took a picture of the back of the car early on, thinking we might need this number – and are prepared. 5 Euros later – we’ve paid for our parking spot. What a relief.

Parking paid for, we walk to the main square – predictably packed with tourists. I’m both starving and dying for a toilet stop, so we pick the nearest restaurant (expensive, very pretty, and not very good) and empty one end and fill the other. Rest stop over, we are ready to visit the Palace.

We’ve been warned that the crowds here can translate into insane waits to get in, and poor visiting conditions, but luck is with us. We’ve managed to catch a break between tour groups and bus loads, and sneak in with no hitches, and no crowds.

The Palace is a stunner. Built by the Kings of Portugal after visiting the Alhambra in Spain, it has moorish influence, and has seen countless renovations. There’s a free audio tour, and senior pricing. We’re happy.

The highlight of the tour, for me in any case, was being in the room where Columbus was given his commission to find a path to India, and where Vasco Da Gama returned to announce to King Manual I that he had found the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to India and back. Wow – history happened right here…

I’m glad we came to Sintra, but I total understand why some folks have given us conflicted reports. The mobs are daunting, and we are not even in high season. I can not imagine what this place will be like in just a few weeks. But for now I’ve seen it – done it – Don’t have to come back.

Our plan for the rest of the day is to navigate our way into Lisbon (Lisboa for those in the know – like the Portuguese) and park the car. Tomorrow we are going to return the car and be done with it. And I for one will say good riddance. Cars are nice to have, but getting lost isn’t any fun, and we’ve had our parking challenges. So all in all, I shall be happy to return it to Europcar.

And for once, our plan actually works. Our directions to the AirBnB are easy to follow, and while it’s on the slope of a hill (Not good for Victor’s hip issues), it’s quite lovely.

Occupying two floors, we walk in to a hall, dodge around a staircase to squeeze past the bathroom to another hall and the bedroom. Our bedroom has a massive window overlooking the garden below and from there out to distant buildings and eventually the ocean. There’s even an orange tree to admire. Down stairs is the kitchen (kinda old and crummy – but all we really wanted it has – a fridge and a clothes Washer (heaven..)). The main room has a dining table (perfect for Victor to use with his computer), and a comfy sofa. Outside of sliding glass doors that take up the entire width of the apartment (about 12 feet – max) is a tiny garden with a paved floor and several plants. It’s sunny, and the birds are having a blast. It’s perfect.

For dinner we go to the near by Journalist Club, one of the top restaurants in Lisboa, and certainly interesting if not overwhelming. After dinner it’s a short walk down hill back to our tiny palace. It’s late (of course) and it’s bed time. I’m out like a light. Give me a good bed and an open window – I’m a happy camper.

Signing off to get a good nights rest – finally – 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