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).

Edo-Tokyo Museum – A Must See!


We’ve seen hundreds of Museums – seriously – hundreds. So if we love a museum – you have to realize we’re comparing it to some of the best in the world.

And the Edo-Tokyo Museum literally blew our socks off. This is an amazing museum, no matter what your age, your language, your interest level. It is simply stunning.

From the outside, you are already impressed. The first two floors of the massive structure are just the ticket hall, an auditorium, the shops, restaurants, and a special exhibit space. You take an elevator to the 3rd floor – and you are on a massive open air terrace – with the rest of the museum hanging 3 floors above you, supported by just 3 massive pillars.

Stunning.

To reach the permanent exhibit space, you can either take the boring elevator up, or ride an open air escalator up 3 floors to the beginning of the museum proper on the 6th floor.

The interior is simply breath-taking. Directly ahead of you is a vast open space – crossed by a massive wooden bridge 25 meters long. This is a full size model of the original Nipponbashi bridge, but 1/2 the original length. The bridge crosses over the open space – over a full size Noh Theatre on one side and a scaled version of Tokyo from about the thirties to fifties on the other. There are full size rickshaws, bicycles, and similar objects for kids to climb on and be photographed on.

Once across the bridge, there are 3 scale miniatures of sections of Tokyo during the Edo Period. All are done in absolute detail, with incredible precision. Impressive without the explanation, but we had asked for one of the Free (our favourite price point) English guides, and she walked us thru the most interesting parts of the models. I’ve already mentioned the detail – but with her explanation, it was easy to see even more. The rocks holding the roofs down for example, or the tenement housing hidden off the main streets and paid for as an act of charity by the wealthy were just two of the interesting sites to see.

They provide binoculars to help kids (or adults with fading vision) get a closer look at the going ons. The section highlighted is near the famous bridge – which during the Edo Period was a fish market.

Drawings from the period – of which there are lots and lots – spend oodles of time detailing the life of the commoner folk since drawing pictures of the higher court officials including the Shogun and the Imperial Princesses was a crime ending in beheading. So there is ample source material to choose from when doing detailed studies of common life, and the designers of the museum have gone to great lengths to be as accurate as possible.

Another section of the museum is devoted to life in the aforementioned tenements – fascinating. There’s information on the omnipresent fire-brigades – a necessity in Tokyo of the period. The fireman were all tattooed- done so that they could be identified if they were killed in the line of duty. And they carried tall poles with horse hide strips that could be spun to keep sparks off the head fire fighters. They had small water buckets – but the primary way of fighting fires was simply to pull down the houses – carefully in the direction that would not incite more flames.

Another section was full of period correct street vendors. That was where we learned that sushi was 5 times larger in those days – and that 2 pieces of sushi was an entire meal. We also learned that almost all Japanese in those days were Buddhist’s – and thus vegan with the exception of fish. The lack of calcium in the diet for over 250 years goes a long way towards explaining the small size and the hunched backs we’ve seen here in Tokyo. Our guide explained that the Meiji Government recognized the problem, and changing the average diet was for them and the Governments after them an important priority.

A small section was devoted to the Noh Theatre – where our guide explained the logic behind the white painted faces. In the days of candle light, it was hard to see faces distinctly – and the Geisha relied on their faces to entertain. So painting them white made them stand out in a room – and the white faces of the actors performed a similar function on the stages of the time.

One more tidbit I want to share before signing off. There was an interactive display with a pole and two buckets for kids and adults to try lifting. Our guide asked us what we thought was inside the buckets. We suggested water – but she said – no – something much much more valuable – human waste. Yup, it turns out that in Edo times, human waste – particularly the waste from wealthy people was used as top quality fertilizer, and the farmers paid dearly for the privilege of taking your waste from your home. So folks would race home if they had to go – keeping the streets clean and putting money in their pockets. Who knew?

So – if you take a day off from shopping in Tokyo and want to do something really informative and interesting – check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. I think you’ll thank me for the suggestion.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Musings on the Dawn of a new Era


When we were planing our trip – one of the key days that we wanted to be in Japan was May 1, 2019. On the day before the old Emperor was formally abdicating the throne, in favour of his son. And on May 1st – the new Emperor was to be crowned. This would mark the beginning of the Reiwa Era of Japan.

It’s a key moment in history. Nothing like this has happened in Japan for over 200 years – and the planning for this was begun over 5 years ago.

So We were keen to see what, if anything, the Japanese would make of this moment.

And the answer is perhaps not surprising.

Not much is visible to the eyes of a foreigner.

Some Museums honoured the transition by having a free museum day – we went to 2 of them in hopes of there being some kind of something – but nope. Just perhaps more Japanese than normal taking advantage of the opportunity to see their National Museum, but hardly earth shattering impact.

There was a crowd gathered at the automobile exit from the Imperial Palace, we assume in hopes of spotting one of the 2600 invited dignitaries. And there appeared to us to be a bit more of a police presence. Certainly seeing 3 of those big police moving vans was a tad daunting. And there were two helicopters circling the Imperial City air space – I’m guessing either as protection or loaded with news cameras. In the US – it would be news cameras – but in Japan – I’m betting on protection.

And there was a much, much later crowd gathered at the Nippon Budokan – that sports center/music venue. But that crowd of young Japanese women buying fan items for their newest ‘hot’ idol was definitely not thinking of the new era.

So – not much to report I suppose. But at least we were here – and we had a marvellous dinner with the son of the Intrepid Traveler. Which was made more delightful after the challenges of trying to find him in the Ikebukuro Train Station. We’d agreed to ‘text’ each other our locations – but hadn’t figured on the lack of WIFI. I need WIFI to use texting here in Japan – I couldn’t afford a data plan.

After asking several restaurants and tea houses if they had WIFI, I finally decided that the safest bet were the restaurants on the 8th floor of the Seibu Department store. And I was right – they had a public WIFI, and I was able to contact my friend’s son. Whew!

Our dinner, during which the dawning of the new era in Japan was not mentioned – even once – we relaxed and enjoyed completely delicious meat slices cooked quickly over a grill. My favourite – no surprise – the Wagu Beef.

So all in all a lovely day – if not the earth shattering one we’d hoped.

Signing off – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

2 Down – lots to go!


The Intrepid Traveler and I are museum buffs. Serious museum buffs. So rain or shine, English or no English – we are going to visit as many museums as we can squeeze in while we are here in Japan.

Our plans for today were a bit washed out by the weather, and our own stupidity. Last night it poured – and while our home away from home is lovely – it’s also made of wood with shoji screens on the windows and what I suspect is a tin roof. So while we were safe and dry – unless we were trying to navigate that rickety iron staircase down, the noise of the rain was considerable. We woke a bit sleep deprived – but still ready to rock the world – or at least a tiny section of Tokyo.

After a quick breakfast – with a disastrous attempt at coffee (never liked instant – never will) we headed out – making our first critical mistake of the day. We didn’t grab umbrellas. Clearly overly optimistic – and an error we won’t make again. It poured on and off all day – and we were well and truly soaked by lunch time. I took off my socks and spent the afternoon barefoot in sandals – it was that wet. The Intrepid Traveler fared little better – her ‘rain jacket’ is water resistant – and gave up the ghost after noon.

We navigated ourselves around using maps.me (free off-line GPS map App) and by asking a lot of questions. I’ve gotten very good at showing folks the name of where I want to go in both English and Japanese, and the subway officials are very good at grabbing laminated maps and pointing out the correct locations. We haven’t gotten too lost – I think.

We did wander into the Yushukan Shrine – just 150 years old and dedicated to the war dead of Japan. There was a war relics museum on the site – but we just opted to clap our hands 3 times, toss a coin into the offering box, and make a quick prayer. It was a relaxing interval in an otherwise busy day.

But I digress. This blog is about our first 2 museums in Tokyo.

The Showa Memorial Museum was outstanding. I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Japan. While it definitely presents a bit of a white-washed view of what life in Japan during and shortly after WWII was like – it was absolutely fascinating – and featured a free (and extremely well worth it) audio guide in English. The museum itself is just a collection of objects and photos dating from that time period – mostly taken in Tokyo – but the slice of life that is represented is interesting, meaningful, and intriguing. My personal highlight was the rising sun lunchbox. Those who have read “Memoirs of a Geshia” might recall her mentioning it. It was amazing to actually see one.

I also found the sections on how schools were impacted intriguing. At first of course – the changes were made to encourage nationalism – textbooks rewritten to praise the Emperor and to inspire children to become good soldiers. As time went on, the need for children to want to be soldiers became more and more intense, and the schools were told point blank to work towards that direction. Eventually the need for factory workers because even more important than the need for soldiers – and school kids were taught how to operate machines. Towards the end, as more and more children were evacuated from Tokyo, the school system shut down.

After the war ended, and the children returned to Tokyo to find most school buildings destroyed or at least severely damaged. Classes resumed – but outdoors or in layered time periods as less damaged schools were used by multiple classes. Eventually textbooks went back to standard formats – but for a while they were only available in heavily censored 1940 versions. Growing up in this time period – which corresponds to when I was growing up – must have been very challenging.

Another section dealt with what happened to the War Widows. At first they were considered war heroes and given a pension. But when the war ended – that changed drastically. Widows were no longer heroes, they no longer got a pension, and many of them had no career training. Life for them was intensely challenging, simple survival because almost impossible.

All in all – the museum was well worth the visit.

A bit dryer, we now had to walk to our next port of call – the Momat – The National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. To get from the Showa to the Momat required us to walk past a lovely garden – but given the rain – we opted not to spend time there. We also strolled past the Nippon Budokan – a huge sports center that today was hosting a K-Pop concert. The crowds were considerable – and clearly out for a great time.

Following my open door policy (if a door is open – go in) – we also wandered into the East Imperial Palace Garden – which was having a free admission day. This is the grounds of the original Edo Palace – dating from the time of the Shogun, and while today it is just a lovely garden, at one time must have been a magnificent collection of buildings and flowering paths that the Imperial Court wandered at their leisure.

But eventually we made it to the Momat. After the highlight of the Showa, I must admit that the Momat was very disappointing. I found that given the wealth of Tokyo, and the intriguing public art that surrounds us as we wander the streets of the city, I absolutely expected more – a lot more – of the Momat. The price however was right – it was free to seniors over 65 – and worth exactly what we paid for it. At least we were dry.

So one winner – one loser – and wet feet. The story of our 2nd day in Tokyo.

For dinner we opted to eat in – Fresh Udon Noodles and Fried Boneless Chicken Breast. It was actually quite acceptable as a meal. About half way thru dinner – the guests that I thought spoke no English joined us – and to our surprise the young guy (Trung) spoke excellent English. His friend Anne spoke only Vietnamese and Japanese (Right – only 2 languages… sigh) We had a completely delightfully fun evening getting to know them.

They are from Vietnam, but are currently living here in Japan. Trung (27) is a student in the north of Japan, and is studying Japanese methods of Site preservation. He intends to go back to Vietnam and work there preserving the shrines and other religious sites that abound – and absolutely need preservation. We asked about getting the funds needed to do such work – and he assured us that religious sites have little trouble raising money – at their hearts the Vietnamese are quite religious.

Our conversation was wide ranging – from concerns about aging (another blog) to more political topics. – Trung told us about the Japanese law that restricts building habitation to just 25 years. According to him – and I want to confirm this somehow – After 25 years, homes (I’m guessing new construction only, or perhaps homes that are built quickly – not apartment buildings) are declared uninhabitable and must be torn down and rebuilt. He says that the law was written shortly after the end of WWII – and is based on the fact that there are earthquakes every 10 seconds in Japan. Most are very Mild ones I’m guessing since I haven’t felt any since we’ve been here. Which is a good thing. Anyway – Many homes are built of cheap materials – put up quickly – and just as quickly fall into ruin. He told us that 20% of the homes in Tokyo are currently condemned and thus vacant. And we have seen vacant homes that have clearly fallen on hard times. Even the home we are staying in was in ruins before the current owner (the grand-daughter of the original owner) rebuilt it in 2015. And she has the pictures to prove it.

He also spent quite some time discussing the current history of Vietnam, giving us an interesting if to our minds one sided and clearly a school taught view of the situation leading up to the US involvement. He felt strongly that life in Vietnam was much improved at present – I can only hope he’s right.

Eventually we toddled off to bed. I wore not only my nightgown, but also a long sleeved turtle neck and socks. I’m not getting cold tonight.

Tomorrow is another day.

The Soup lady and the Intrepid traveler – signing off.

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

Malta – It isn’t just about meeting Royality


Not that meeting royality isn’t fun of course. It is – but life needs more than that – and Malta definitely delivers.

The Royality that we meet are two Marquis – but I’m getting ahead of my story.

Last night was a late night – and tonight promises to be late as well, but before we can go to the ball – our hosts have planned a day of Regency adventure. Well – not really adventure of course – but fun Regency style for sure.

We are all dressed in our ‘day’ outfits – so while not ball gowns – we do look pretty fancy. Our day starts with breakfast – and I must say we create quite the stir at the breakfast area. The staff quickly realizes that we must all be together – and seats us near each other. Handy for comparing outfits for sure.

After Breakfast, we stroll arm in arm over to the Gardens, where we pose for pictures (there are a lot of Japanese who are going to leave Malta very happy), and admire the view, the flowers and each other. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour. We then gather for a group painting (amazing how quickly those square devices make instant paintings these days), then stroll down the streets of Valletta to the Casa Rocco Piccolo. Our tour will be very special – the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro will be our tour guides.

Our group is split in half – 10 of us go with the Marquis, 10 with his wife. We’re lucky to be in the group with the Marquis – particularly because in our group is Tony – also a Marquis in Malta! And of course he and the Marquis de Piro are friends, and trade lively banter through out our tour. I’m dying to ask the Marquis what his children said when he announced – 20 years ago now – that he was opening their home to tourists – but I guess the question was rather mute. His older son runs the company that runs the tours!

The house itself is lovely of course – and packed with odds and ends of a life well lived. They have inherited collections upon collections from their family members – and all of them are carefully kept in the house. There was a folding chapel – for use when you didn’t want to dedicate an entire room to your chapel, there were 3 shoes from various popes – given to the family as thank-you presents. The Marquis explains that being given a shoe said you were close to the Pope, a gift that has since fallen into disrepute – not surprisingly. I think it’s weird.

There were a few outstanding paintings, but most of the collections were books – particularly books on Maltese arts and crafts like lace making. In another room were paintings of famous family members, including one aunt who was considered fairly wild and carefree – in 1920.

In our Regency clothes, we suit the house well – and both the Marquis and Marchioness observe that we are probably some of their best dressed visitors.

We leave for a glorious multi-course luncheon, and then retire to our hotel. I for one am definitely napping before we must dress for the ball. Tonight is going to be a very late night.

The highlights of the ball – aside from it’s location in a Church Museum in Medina – is the horse drawn carriage ride thru the walled city, the glorious desserts provided (I’m very fond of the Nipples of Venus that were served), and of course the dancing. The Dance hall has much better acoustics then our practice space, and a lot more room. I dance and dance till my feet hurt – what a wonderful way to spend the evening.

Tomorrow will be more Regency Fun – but tonight was memorable.

Signing off to tuck her very tired feet into her warm cozy bed – The Soup Lady

Day 2 in SA Wine Country – Only 1 Winery – Thank Goodness


We wake to our alarm, and go down stairs for breakfast. While not quite as wonderful as the breakfast at the Cape Heritage, it’s a delightful spread of various cheeses, cereals, fresh fruit (I love fruit), 4 different kinds of breads, and hot items such as scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes. I order a Latte (wonderful), and even score a newspaper to read. Nice start to the day.

We head out to Spier, one of the massively huge wineries in the area. Spier offers family friendly entertainment along with the wine tasting – there is a ‘Bird of Prey’ exhibit, a large area for picnics, and even Segway Tours of the vineyard. But we are here for the tasting. We are seated at a table, and asked which of the options on offer we would prefer – the standard tasting, the chocolate and wine tasting, or the prestige tasting. Victor reminds them that we’d pre-ordered our selections – and this upgrades us to the ‘knows something about wine’ category. A shift in staff happens – and our new ‘server’ is far more knowledgable about what Spier has to offer. It turns out that she started in the Cellars 3 years ago and has been steadily promoted to a role as one of the ‘top’ tasters.

She certainly knows her wines – and gives us an excellent taste tour though what the vineyard has to offer. The challenge comes when we try to buy some of the wines. They can’t figure out how to ship to the US. Seriously? You are one of the largest producers in the area, and you have no US distribution? How odd is that.

Well – never mind – your competitors have it figured out – we’ll buy wine from them.

After the tasting, we head over to the ‘Slow Market’. I’d seen the signs – it’s held at a winery near by on Saturday from 10-3 – and I think it sounds interesting. And I was right. Unlike the market we went to a few nights ago – this market is huge. There are vendors both inside and outside, and they are selling ready to eat food, soaps, African handicrafts, their personal art (paintings mostly, but there are a pair of brothers doing wire bead work that I love), flowers, vegetables, hand painted this and that – basically it’s a giant assortment of vendors, all selling things that they made.

We love it. We wander thru the entire market, checking prices and admiring this, that and the other before we decide on a freshly made waffle for lunch, along with strawberries picked that day by a local farmer. I surrender to the need to buy something by picking out beaded flowers made by the two brothers mentioned above, and Victor buys some wooden bowls to give as gifts.

After lunch, we head back into Stellenbosch to check out an antique store we spotted (it’s closed by the time we get there), and to visit two of the non-wine related highlights of Stellenbosch, the Village Museum and the Botanical Gardens.

At the Village Museum, the movie isn’t working, but the visits to the 4 older homes (one from 1750’s, two dating from around 1812, and the last from 1850. All 4 homes have interpreters dressed appropriately who give you the standard intro when you walk in. If you ask them questions, they actually know quite a bit about the homes, but the onus is on the visitor to be inquisitive.

We are particularly impressed with the knowledge of the gal in the first 1812 house, and actually leave her a bit extra as a tip.

The Botanical Gardens is a relatively compact area in town that has been a public garden for over 200 years. It is tied to the University – and there are students doing homework or just lounging on most of the larger green portions. The gardens has 4 large greenhouses, a giant Fern garden, a rose garden, several pond areas, and lots of paths winding here and there. It’s quite a lovely spot to spend some time. We are particularly intrigued by a large flowering plant that apparently grows in the shade. But of course – we can’t bring anything home with us like that – we must admire but not buy!

Eventually we head back to our hotel, change for dinner and again wander the streets searching for just the right spot to have dinner. We opt for a hotel restaurant that has set up tables on the sidewalk, making for a lovely outdoor eating area. I love my braised pork belly – a nice change from Lamb chops.

After dinner, it’s back to the Oude Werf for bed.

Tomorrow is another day, another winery… Signing off – The Soup Lady