Posts Tagged ‘Camping’

Versailles to Belgium

Saturday, May 30th, 2009

Versailles to Belgium
Tuesday morning (18/5) dawned clear and dry and we awoke in our little campsite between the field and the golf course outside of Pontoise, France. After a breakfast of delicious (if slightly browned) Scott’s porridge with honey, we packed up and hopped in the car. “To Versailles!” we cried and promptly got stuck in some mud. A few minutes later we were on our way, but our jet black Passat was not quite as stunning as it had been, nor as black.

Versailles Palace, just outside the town of Versailles (which is a suburb of Paris these days but used to be outside of the city). The palace was originally built during the reign of Louis XIV, who was called the “Sun King” and king during the apex of French continental power. Apparently, however, he was a rather warlike fellow who preferred fighting to friendship and ended up almost bankrupting the kingdom through constant warfare. His residence at Versailles was built around his father’s (Louis XIII) garden chateau, which he expanded greatly in the highly ornate classical style that was popular during his reign.

The most obvious example of the highly ornate style is the pair of gigantic, gold-painted gates which stand at the entrance to the inner courtyard of the palace. The palace sits facing a gigantic parade grounds (now filled with cars and busses full of German, Spanish, and British tourists and middle school students). Behind the palace are the expansive gardens, at least a square mile in size, which contain smaller houses for many of the kings courtiers, mistresses, and family members.

We parked in the parade grounds (which cost several euros and hour to park in) and ate a delicious lunch of baguette, salami-like sausage tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese sandwiches. Then we headed into the palace after purchasing our tickets (they cost around €13, quite expensive, and didn’t even include admission to the gardens although Matt managed to walk around them without paying admission) we went into the palace. I personally found the palace gaudy, but nonetheless impressive. The apartments of the royal family were filled with family portraits and artwork. Almost every inch of the walls were covered with tapestries, paintings, carvings or other ornamentation. Most impressive to me was the hall of mirrors, at one point a state reception hall with tall windows along one side and tall mirrors along the other. The effect produced fills the room with light.

Versailles was worth the visit—despite the price–for the history alone. It was occupied by several generations of French royalty including the infamous Louis XVI and his equally as infamous wife, Marie Antoinette. It was easy to see while walking the halls of their home why they were perceived as being out of touch with the common people. It’s hard to notice the plight of the commoners when your busy posing for a 10-foot-high portrait or choosing the newest gold-plated silverware for your collection. Today the palace is used by the democratic government of France as the reception hall for events of state, particularly when hosting important international events.

By the end of several hours and after seeing hundreds of portraits and thousands of square feet of decorated walls we were about ready to go. Dan and Matt—Matt because he was exploring the gardens, and Dan because he’s a history major—took a bit longer so David and I waited in the car writing blog posts and catching up in our journals (oddly enough when I opened my computer we had an internet connection right there in the middle of the Versailles parade grounds). After waiting a bit and just before the start of another hour of parking David and I took off to circle the block and save a few euros, and just as we were coming back around for our first pass we saw a bewildered looking Dan and Matt standing where we had been parked, so we picked them up and headed northeast. They forgave us for the annoyance of not knowing where the car was when we explained that we had saved them several euros.

We skirted Paris and headed north in the direction of Lille (where I once spent a few hours waiting for a train) and Belgium. We stopped only twice, once to fill up on water and use the toilet and, just before we were on our way, we were surprised when we spotted a small abyssinian guinea pig peeking it’s nose out of the bushes next to the parking lot! The other time we stopped was to get a picture with the sign welcoming us to Belgium. It was pretty difficult to find a place to camp in Belgium, it’s a nation with some beautiful countryside, but it’s also pretty heavily populated countryside. We did eventually, rather late in the evening, find a place to set up camp in the fallow land between two fields. As we drove off the farm track to camp, several rabbits scampered across the field, startling me a bit. Dan, Matt and I slept in the car and David slept on a tarp outside and, after a meal of some stew with canned ham, we nodded off.

Daniel Z

Edinburgh, Jewel of the North

Friday, May 8th, 2009

Morning dawned cloudy after our unexpected nocturnal adventures (ie losing ourselves in the wonders of Edinburgh during construction season). It has been raining off and on for almost a week now and to tell the truth we’re all getting a bit tired of it. Another thing we’re getting a bit tired of is having Harvest Morn bars for breakfast each morning. Although these are delicious and highly nutritious, a full week of them begins grate on the senses. That’s why we decided to enjoy a full breakfast of free-range eggs, thick-cut toast, and real scottish bacon. It was spectacular. A breakfast which will stand out in legend for ages to come.

After fully enjoying the cooking and eating of our spectacular morning meal, we set off for a full day of exploration in the capital of the Scottish world, Edinburgh. A sprawling city built between several hills near the end of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh has become a mecca for anyone seeking the “Scottish Experience.” Lining the steeply downhill Golden Mile from the ancient and stately Edinburgh Castle to the impressive and glamorous Holyrood Palace is a plethora of shops and tourist traps. The Scottish Whiskey Experience, Thistle Do Nicely, and The Edinburgh Woolen Mill share the road with two magnificent cathedrals and dozens of 18th and 19th century buildings.

Throughout the entire city, history meshes with kitsch in an amalgam of historic beauty and garish modernity. The finest example of this dichotomy was seen near the bottom end of the Golden Mile where ancient Holyrood Palace shares an intersection with the new Scottish parliament building. Built within the past decade to house the Scottish Parliament–a body devolved from the UK Parliament in 1997–the parliament building on the outside is made of shaped steel, wood and glass in a way which calls to mind an image of a bamboo forest. In any modern city (eg Chicago, Columbus, even Belfast) it would have been quite an interesting and beautiful building, but as the seat of power for the leadership of the rugged, rocky and natural nation of Scotland and when contrasted with the ancient stone cathedrals, palaces and castles surrounding it, it ends up looking simply tacky. But enough about architecture and back to exploration.

I’m not sure exactly what David, Dan and Matt did during the afternoon, but I made my way out of town in the car with our clothes only about half of which had dried overnight and used one of the first dry days since our arrival in Scotland to hang our clothes out to finish drying. I drove about 20 minutes out of Edinburgh and pulled off the highway doing a bit of exploring until I found a driveway leading to the entryway of a field. There tied up a line from the car to a fencepost and strung our laundry up to dry. It took about 2 hours even in the bright sun and constant wind, but I managed to get some reading done–I’ve been reading Frank Herbert’s Dune after finishing Starship Titanic earlier in the trip–and took a nap. It was a very nice day and no one bothered me until just as I was taking the laundry down a fellow drove up and asked if I needed any help and when I said no he asked if I had been dumping trash there–apparently a problem in the area–I told him I had just been drying my laundry and he said “Right. No problem. Cheers!” and drove off. We’ve been quite amazed by the friendliness of pretty much every single person we’ve encountered here (except for one rather curt waitress in Galway).

After my leisurely afternoon, I rejoined the guys at our appointed meeting spot in Edinburgh (the Burger King with free WiFi). Soon we were on our way (after a dash to get back to the parking lot before our time expired and we got charged €4.50). We drove steadily northwest toward Loch Ness and the Lake District of Scotland–not to be confused with the Lake District of England–and one of my ancestral homelands.

We spent the night by a stream just a few miles outside of Inverness at the tip of Loch Ness and were not attacked by monsters of any sort.

Daniel Z