Kingston – a pit stop on the road to Toronto


I’m on the road today. Leaving Kingston by train for Toronto. My sisters are flying in to Toronto this morning too. It’s my 70th Birthday – and we are meeting up at the UP station near the train station to spend a ‘sister”s’ weekend celebrating that milestone.

I’m hoping there’s a waiting room or somewhere to sit at the UP Station. I can’t remember for the life of me. But I’m sure I’ll work it out.

I came to Kingston from Montreal by train on Tuesday – to play bridge. They are having a Regional Competition this week, and I’m squeezing in two days of bridge before my birthday celebrations in Toronto. My trip here was uneventful. I arrived early at the train station in Kingston, which is located in the middle of basically nothing but forest/farm land. A local bus driver, with help from two of the other passengers, determined my best bet to get to the St. Lawerence College was to take the slow and winding 16 route. At least I don’t have to change buses, and I get a free tour of downtown Kingston. I also get to chat up some of the locals – who for reasons I do not understand decide to share their medical histories with me. To you both – I hope you feel better soon!

Soon enough I”m at the college, and a young student (he’s a grad student, so not that young, but it’s in comparison) walks me to the door to the residences so I can drop off my small suitcase. He also points out the food court, and the gym where we’ll be playing bridge.

The College is one very long, very narrow building on two floors that is probably the result of joining several smaller buildings into one at some point in it’s history. It’s relatively modern looking, and has most of the expected facilities – non-gender toilets, white boards in all classrooms, and signs. Lots and lots of signs. There’s a cooking school (the student restaurant isn’t open for the summer, but I did see signs of a class being held), a vet school (complete with a furry quick stop, and even a weight room. Recycling here is big – and there are 4 different sorting bins – including one just for coffee cups.

And it’s clean. And relatively empty being that it’s summer and while there are classes – the population is clearly reduced from what it must be during ‘term’. But I”m not here for school – I’m here for bridge!

And Kingston for bridge was interesting. I met some very nice people and saw a lot of the same faces from Toronto Regionals. My PUP (pick up partner) was ‘The Independent Lady’ – 73 years young and very very interesting. She’s been married 4 times – has 2 sons from two different husbands – and is very independent today. I admire this of course, but do not envy her at all! I kinda like my cozy married life of almost 48 years.. But she was a very decent partner – we had our ups and downs on Tuesday, but on Wednesday we put our acts together – and did very well. We came in first in our section in the Gold Rush (yeah!!) and even finished in the top 4 in a side game against some pretty impressive competition. I was very pleased.

Last night we decided to share a 3/4 bottle of red wine after the night game, and went up to the lounge on her floor of the college residence. There were others bridge players there – and we chatted and drank and practiced yoga (yes – someone has the pictures to prove that) until after midnight.

We agreed to try to get together again – like me she travels a lot and lacks a consistent partner. We shall see how that works out. She’s not as good as Fern (the gal I went on the cruise with), although she has more master points. While she’s been playing for a long time, she’s still open to new ideas about defence – what I think is the most crucial part of the game. Everyone can learn conventions – but 50% of the time you are on defence – and that makes or breaks your scoring.

I think there’s a definite problem with folks that have been playing for too many years and are willing to teach, but not so willing to learn – they are sure that they know what they know – whereas I’m sure of what I don’t know.

On the subject of college residences… Well, they haven’t changed much since my Tufts University days in 1966-1970. I honestly felt transported back to that single room I had my senior year. The only difference – they have put bathrooms inside the rooms – so no sharing the toilet. But otherwise – it was identical. My bed was the upper part of a bunk bed that had been split, so a metal frame that was a good 25” above the floor. I had to hoist myself up to get in! I had a single window on one wall – which at least could open. The sheets and bed covering were thread bare and had been washed a zillion times. Same for the towels. The closet had no hangers, so I had to just dump my jackets on the floor, or hang them on the back of the only chair in the room.

On the first night – I was so so cold. I didn’t realize that the thing that looked like an AC on the wall was also a heater. I got up in the middle of the night, walked the long long walk to ‘reception’, and asked for a blanket. (I was already sleeping in my sweat shirt, and wearing socks). She kindly gave me a nice cuddly blanket, and explained how to make the heater work. Finally – I was warm enough to sleep!

Last night I asked for better towels – and that too was provided. So I had a nice warm shower before bed – very nice. Maybe I should have had more water to drink though… Wine tends to give me a bit of a headache, and this morning I feel a bit hungover. But two cups of latte at Via Rail’s expense and a warm breakfast makes for a good pick-me up!

We are playing bridge in the University Gym, and the nearest bathroom is clearly the Woman’s locker room. Two tiny toilets – and the biggest shower space I’ve seen in years. No barriers, no curtains, no separations. I know, guys are not surprised, but for women, we tend to shower in our own space – not in huge open spaces with multiple shower heads. And it smelled horrid. Ah well – I guess Gyms are Gyms.. What was I expecting? Marriott? Not hardly.

Food at the residences was also interesting. I was staying at St. Lawerence College, not Queens. I mention this because it was a bit of a distance from ‘downtown’ Kingston, and the closest food was the ‘food court/cafeteria’ of the college. To get to any restaurant required a healthy walk, or a car. Good news – The Independent Lady had a car. Bad news – the restaurants were Tim Hortons, Subway, and a local Sushi Joint.

The food at the cafeteria was actually excellent – I ate lunch there both days – and it was quite acceptable. But they close at 4:00 PM – And the afternoon bridge game finished at 5:30. So you couldn’t go there for dinner!

The first night – we drove over to Tim Horton’s. The Lady had poutine (seriously?), and I ordered from the Sushi place. It was ok, but too much food, so I carefully took part back to my dorm room and put in the fridge.

The second night we opted to eat at the Residences. The Lady munched on some of my grapes and some cookies I”d taken from Via Rail on my trip into Kingston, I ate most of the remains of my sushi. Not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination.

The company however was stellar. We were sitting outside, and were joined by a young man who is studing to be a Correctional Officier. He was adorable – cute, young, very very strong, and very articulate. He was born in Corsovo (sp?), and had immigrated to Canada while very young. He felt that the Canadian Federal Government had saved his life, and wanted to return the favour by working for them.

We chatted and chatted. He explained that the program is 3 months long, and a new ‘course’ starts every week during the summer, with 30 new trainees. If you finish the program, you are guaranteed a job. But getting into the program is the challenge. Thousands apply, few are accepted! They weight train for an hour every day, the rest of the time is filled with courses and lectures and more physical training. It was an eye-opening look at what kinds of decisions young people make today – and it was very interesting discussing how he felt our prision system is managed.

This morning on my way out to get my taxi to the train station, I saw a large group all dressed in their uniforms heading out to start their day. Man, they looked fit and ready for action.

Yes – both women and men if that was the next question.

One of his reasons for making what I can only think is a odd career choice is that the comarderie among the folks who work/manage the prision system is so intense – something he really wanted. He had done a few weeks in a prison prior to committing to the training program, and had experienced an inmate uprising. This made him want to be part of the system even more.

He also told us that folks can retire from the system after 15 years – young enough to easily get another job where their excellent training make it easy to get hired. His original, and I think final, goal is to be a policeman. This is an inbetween stop. But a long one if it’s a 15 year committement.

One of the interesting things about meeting new folks who are so different from what you normally meet is the increasing odds that you’ll find something that relates them to your own life. And so it was not surprising that this morning I was reading the paper waiting for the train, and ran across a review of the play that my sisters and I bought tickets too in Toronto. Tiled “Out the Window”, it’s subject is police brutality!

Well, how’s that for a blending of fate.

In any case – that’s the news from KIngston. Next stop – Toronto.

Signing off – The Soup Lady

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

Coolest Milking Machine Ever


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robotic Milking Machines Explained

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

Averio – the Venice of Portugal


Well – not quite. But they do try! There are definitely Canals – and what look like Gondolas if Gondolas were much larger, had much brighter paint jobs, and the Gondoliers wore T-Shirts.

But leaving the comparison to Venice aside – I kinda liked Averio. It’s very touristy = and the side walks are rather hard to navigate between the undulating terrain and the mobs of people, but the canals are definitely pretty. I liked the jovial atmosphere and particularly liked the buskers (we saw a group of actors doing a pirate imitation that got the kids really excited, and one of the best living statues I’ve ever seen – it was a woman with a baby carriage dressed as a Victorian lady – and very cool).

We stayed in a lovely hotel – The Averio Palace, located right on the ‘Grand’ Canal. We ate an over-the-top dinner that while not overwhelming, was at least a better value than the one we tried in Porto, and we managed to even tour the old convent/museum. Altogether it was a nice over-night.

It was getting to Averio that proved complicated! I’m not sure what it is about our two – count’m two GPS systems – but neither is being all that easy to use.

Our first GPS system is my cell phone – and the issue with using it is two fold. First off – it costs Data Plan, and I don’t have unlimited Data here in Europe. So I have to use the trick my daughter taught me – you turn on Data, download the directions, and immediately turn off the data. This works great – unless you make a wrong turn. Then of course you are in big trouble. There’s no re-routing ability – and by the time you turn back on your data and request your destination again – you are seriously lost.

How lost became very obvious when we spent an hour driving back roads (one lane, unpaved) thru what looked to be endless forest in search of the former and quite famous convent in Arouca.

We did manage to find it eventually – but not without a great deal of yelling at each other – and the phone!

Our 2nd GPS is a Garmin. And in theory should be better than the phone since it is constantly hooked into the GPS system, no data plan needed.

The issue with the Garmin is that often it just can’t find a place. Case in point – that convent. Which is why we were using my phone in the first place.

But never mind our GPS issues – we did manage to leave Porto with little problem. I must admit that I loved our Air BnB booking – it was a one bedroom apartment on the 2nd floor of a condo building. There was an elevator – our one and only elevator in Portugal as it turns out – a tiny kitchen area, a nice sized living room, a bathroom that required my husband to sit sideways on the toilet to have room for his knees – and a perfect location.

It definitely provide that old real estate maxim – The 3 most important things in buy real estate? Location, location, location!

After a lovely breakfast at our local coffee house (only 4 days – and they greeted us as old friends) we headed south. Our first stop was the castle at Santa Maria de Feira. It is really a castle – exactly like one would expect from the Middle Ages – complete with curving stone stair cases, a great room, and a long involved history. My husband loved it. Our 2nd stop was the afore mentioned convent – which was not only almost impossible to find – was a bit of a disaster as far a visit went.

We arrived in Arouca, and after finding parking (always daunting in these tiny towns) we opted for an extremely locals only dining experience. Mom in the Kitchen, Dad acting as waiter -and when folks arrived who spoke only English – the 20 some Son showing up to help out! He had to check with Mom to find out what was on the menu – we had a choice of steak or veal stew – a local speciality. And I must say – both were delicious. We shared a bottle of wine, and throughly enjoyed ourselves. A good thing given what happened at the convent.

After lunch, we walked to the convent ticket office – where a sign clearly stated – opens at 14:00 (that’s 2:00 PM). No worries, we’ll wander for 5 minutes and be back. We wander, get back – and get told that the ‘tour’ won’t start till 2:30 PM. What is the point of opening at 2:00 if the only way to see the convent (by tour guide) is only happening at 2:30? But never mind – we wait the 30 minutes – to be told, there’s a group coming, they are short staff – and could we please wait till 3:00? Sigh – I drove for almost 2 hours to get here – I’ll wait. So, we wait. Only to discover when the group finally arrives that it is huge – 2 full bus loads. That’s it. I’m not touring a convent with 60 folks who speak only Portuguese. So we tell the gal running the ticket booth – forget it – we’re leaving.

She takes pity on us – and says – I’ll open the doors – tour by yourselves. So she does, we do – and we admire the outstanding work done in the choir stalls for the nuns, the huge kitchen, and the fabulously over the top altar pieces that make up the wealth of this former convent.

From there it’s back on winding roads to Averio, a quick walk around the canals, dinner and bed.

Tomorrow we are going to Coimbra – home of the largest university in Portugal.

But for now – it’s enough.

Signing off to get some much needed shut-eye – The Soup Lady

Porto Vs Malta – a Tale of two Cities


It’s hard not to compare Porto and Malta. To start with – I just spent 4 days in Malta, and now I’ve been in Porto for three days – so they are clearly placed in direct comparison.

Secondly, they are actually quite similar in many ways – and very very different in others.

Language of course is the first major difference. In Malta everyone spoke English – it’s the 2nd official language after Maltese – and all the signs, menus, and shop keepers are more than happy to use English. Porto is of course in Portugal, and Portuguese is the first, and for many of the folks we’ve met, the only language. For the first day, my husband was feeling very disoriented, but by day 3 we’ve gotten used to using sign language and are finding it very easy to get around.

Porto is a much larger city than Valetta in Malta, in fact – it is more populated than the entire island of Malta – so there is a great deal more hustle and bustle. And a lot more of everything – more restaurants, more ice cream shops, more cars, more buses, more of almost everything. But there is also less. I haven’t seen a hobby shop, or a store for buying lace or trimmings. There must be shops for hobbies, but in all our walking, we’ve yet to see one here in Porto. However, we have seen hardware stores, linen stories, lots of clothing stores, shoe stores – and grocery stores. Not to mention wine and port shops. There are also more touristy things, albeit crammed into a small area of the city. This is where Malta and Porto share a bit. Valetta was a tourist heaven – everything in Valetta revolved around making the tourists happy. That is the same in the part of Porto closest to the Douro River. If you are looking for souvenirs – you don’t have to look far once you’ve walked past the train station. Packed in from there down to the Douro are restaurants with lively Terraces, stores selling stuff only a tourist would want, and in the spaces not occupied by these, the occasional church.

Architecture is also somewhat similar. No, Porto doesn’t have the crazy glassed in balconies that were so common in Valetta, but they are both walled cities, they both have narrow winding streets – and here’s the strongest shared strength – pedestrian only sections.

I love these sections – you can walk down the center of the street in both Valetta and Porto and not fear for your life. It’s fantastic. Why don’t more cities try this wonderful approach. I realize it’s hard to get supplies in of course – and while I never saw them stocking the stores in Malta, we did spot that happening here in Porto. The traffic jams were of gigantic proportions – cars and truck everywhere as drivers grabbed boxes out of the backs and ran to deliver their orders before the streets were closed to traffic. And the Portuguese have the coolest way of controlling access to these ‘blocked’ streets. There are posts controlled by phone that block the roads. Drivers apparently either use an app on their phones, or call to some central number – and a minute later – down goes the post. Pretty cool, eh?

Both Valetta and Porto also are filled with churches and religious iconography. In Malta the churches are generally gothic or pre-gothic, dating back to the times of the Knights. Here in Porto, the churches are covered in glorious tile work. Either plainly coloured, or patterned, or my personal favourite – huge graphics of religious images. These glint and gleam in the sun, contrasting sharply with the occasional graffitied wall painting.

The inside’s of the churches of Malta, with the stark exception of the Co-Cathedral which is decorated from stem to stern, are fairly plain. But in Porto, over the top is the way to go. The altars, with few exceptions, had staircases leading upwards towards either the crucified Christ, a version of Mary, or sometimes the patron saint of the church. Once we saw a Church were the top of the staircase was empty. I asked – and it was explained that the ‘insides’ varied according to the season. At Easter time, it was the host, at Christmas, the Christ Child – etc.

I also asked about the staircase motif. I’ve been in dozens and dozens of Catholic Churches, and never seen this before. Apparently it’s a Portuguese thing – they had their own version of Catholicism- and is designed to help the faithful find their mental way up to G-d.

Food options in both Valletta and Porto abound, and since this is the start of the season of eating outside – there were terrace options everywhere. In Malta, which is a bit warmer than Porto, huge umbrellas are used to define your terrace from the terrace of your neighbor. And curiously – the terrace didn’t adjoin your restaurant. Instead, you occupied the center of the walking street – with space for pedestrians on the left and right. In Porto, the terraces are much more likely to be adjoining – absolutely the case when the street was open to traffic, but often true even on the walking sections.

Side note – in Coimbra – our next to next stop, I also spotted the use of these huge umbrellas in the center of walking paths to delineate the Terrace area of a restaurant. A ‘Terrace’ that disappeared when the umbrellas were folded and put away. It’s pretty cool.

Pastries in both cities were of course delicious – and if I don’t stop trying all the delicious options, I won’t fit into my uniform. The ice cream in Malta was better – I’m a fan of the Italian style ice creams. I tasted some in Porto – but they didn’t measure up in my opinion – neither in looks nor flavour. But hey – they were cheaper.

We naturally ate well in both cities. Maybe a bit better in Malta, we had meals supplied by locals that were delicious, and did consistently well when we branched out on our own. In Porto we ran into some losers (bummer), but also some pretty decent winners. As noted in an earlier blog, I absolutely adored the roasted chicken – and the Port Houses serve lovely wine.

So – a tale of two cities – both of which you should put on your must visit list.

Signing off to travel to other cities in Portugal….

The Soup Lady

Malta to the Max


It’s day 3 of our stay on this lovely island – and I’m beginning to appreciate why folks retire here. It is another lovely day – the sun is warm, the sky is blue, and the folks are friendly. What more does one need?

Well – if you are into Regency re-enacting – the answer is a day in the country.

Our plans for today are to do a bit of visiting – although our horse drawn carriages are not up to quite so long a trip. We must take transport from the future – a Bus. Well, actually – two buses. There are a lot of us, and we need space for our hats and canes!

Our ‘outing’ is to the homes of two family members of some of the organizers – at the first stop we enjoy a stroll in their olive grove, and do a bit of olive oil tastings. We also stroll down to a small local chapel, and the more energetic of us even visit the remains of the last donkey driven well on Malta.

We then change homes to a larger estate that has a swimming pool (no skinny dipping – sorry), a lovely flower garden, a commanding view of the ocean, and sufficient room for dancing. I’m guessing at least 2 acres of grounds in total, all of it beautifully maintained.

We stroll, we dance, we eat, and we chat. All things that Regency folks would have found endlessly amusing.

Eventually we must return to Valletta (it’s already 8:00 PM) – and regretfully end our Regency Weekend.

We retire to our rooms – and change clothes. There is of course the rest of this evening and all the next day to enjoy ourselves in Malta.

Dinner is at a lovely restaurant built into the walls of the old city, and featuring it’s own museum. Our group is a buzz with the excitement of the weekend, and we stay late chatting.

The next morning our plans include shopping for lace and trimming for more Regency gowns – and Malta offers some wonderful shops for this purpose. I buy meter upon meter of lovely trim, enough to make several more dresses. Now all I need is the material!

After shopping, we head over to the Armoury of the Knights of Malta – a highlight for my husband and Peter. I’m less impressed – if you’ve seen one helmet – you’ve seen too many.

We walk down to the walls that plummet down to the Grand Harbour to admire the set-up for tonight’s FireWork Finale. There’s a huge floating performance stage with enough electronics on it to cause a significant shock if it should hit the water. We watch crews position fire work barges out on the water – this should be a pretty decent fireworks display.

We’ve made reservations at the roof top restaurant that we enjoyed our first evening – they have a commanding view of the Grand Harbour – and should be a perfect place for watching the fireworks.

And they definitely deliver. There is an outdoor terrace – but folks have reserved tables there – and we can’t block their view. Instead we are told to climb a spiral staircase to another terrace – and discover the view is even better.

The fireworks start late – everything starts late here – but is well worth the wait. They are outstanding. Because they can – they use the entire length of the harbour – well over 2 km long – and the fireworks fill the space. They are coordinated to music – which we can hear rising almost dream like from below us. It’s an incredible experience – one I shall long remember.

This is our fourth night staying up after midnight, and I’m beginning to feel the strain. Since my normal bed time is around 9:30 – ok, I’ll push it to 10:00 – you can imagine that I’m beginning to feel a bit like butter spread too thin on toast. And tomorrow we must say good-bye to Malta and travel onwards.

My feet hurt, my back is saying – stop, and my mind agrees.

Enough is enough.

Signing off to get a well deserved nights rest – even if it starts at 2:00 AM – 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