Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Coronavirus travel info

Just a quick update to the coronavirus travel situation.

You will likely have heard or will soon hear the breaking news that the World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic.

In view of this news, those who have travel planned or who are thinking of travel should know that the Canadian government has created a page specifically for travel advisories related to COVID-19. This is probably the best place to find science-based, non-hysterical information about the dangers of travel to specific countries.

Safe travels!

Is housesitting for you?

Leon, our charming host in France.

Following a recent housesit in France, I have had a number of queries from curious friends and family for more information about how housesitting works. I hope this post will answer a lot of questions and give you a sense of whether you might like to try it.

Mark and I began housesitting about three years ago. I had bumped into housesitting sites on the Web and thought it an interesting idea.

In the typical housesit, no money changes hands. The sitter lives in the host’s home for free while the host is away and performs certain duties without pay. Those duties may include pet care, plant or lawn care, pool maintenance, etc. The sitter is also expected to keep the house tidy and clean to the standards of the host. There are variations on this model e.g., I’ve seen ads where the host expected the sitter to pay for utilities during their sit, or where the sitter was asked to look after an AirBnB suite, but these are not common. Sometimes the host will allow the sitter to use their car. Out of five sits that we’ve done, two gave us the keys to their car.

So that’s it in a nutshell: free accommodations for the sitter and free house/pet sitting for the host.

Sit periods can range from a couple of days to a year. There are sits available in major cities like Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles as well as in very rural settings. They are in sprawling farms and in tiny apartments.

To find a sit, you might want to belong to a housesit website, which will list available sits as well as available housesitters (should you be a homeowner seeking a sitter). I’ve dealt with three sites: nomador.com, trustedhousesitters.com, and housecarers.com, but I’m sure there are many others out there. Nomador (about $90 per year, with a free trial option) has a lot of sits in French-speaking countries plus other countries. Trustedhousesitters ($130 annual fee) I haven’t accessed for a long time, so I’m not sure whether they specialize in certain areas. Housecarers (US$50 per year) is the one I’ve used the most and the one where I’m still a member. It has a lot of sits in Australia, but also worldwide. You can browse all of these sites without becoming a member so you can get an idea of the kind of sits available, but if you want to apply for a sit, then you need to become a member.

Once you are a member of a site, here are some tips for getting the housesits you want:

  • Develop a good resume. Do a couple of sits so that you can advertise experience. You can do sits closer to home in order to gain this experience. Our first house sit was on Mayne Island.
  • Get references. Remember, from the host’s point of view, this is all about trust, so you need to do everything you can to gain their trust. Start with personal references and an RCMP background check (currently $25) then add references from hosts as you accumulate experience.
  • Be diligent about checking the site. An interesting offer will attract a number of applications quickly, so if you don’t see it for several days, you may have already lost out.
  • Be flexible and ready to commit when you see something you like. In the case of France, we had just returned from a trip to Panama and had already committed to a sit in Nanaimo over Christmas. I knew we had open time from mid-January to end of Feb, but I wasn’t seriously searching for a sit and I actually never considered France. However, when the French sit popped up and the time frame was ideal, I did some quick research on the area and thought, Wow, this would be a great place to spend several weeks. I also checked flight prices (terrible) and considered the ongoing general strike in France before applying. The point is, from first seeing the ad to applying was only a few hours, and there were already several other applications.
  • Keep your online profile up to date. Add photos. Mention previous sits and locations. After your initial contact message, your profile is your best chance to impress hosts with your reliability, personality, and character, so make it good.
  • Have a backup plan. We have not had any problems (crossed fingers) but I have read stories about hosts (and sitters) cancelling at the last minute, so I’m sure it happens. Since you’ve already made various arrangements—booked flights maybe, rented a car, taken time off work—what are you going to do? Cancel the whole thing and pay the penalties? Or go ahead and make other arrangements for accommodations? Either way it’s going to cost you more money than you planned, so it’s best to consider this in advance.

Housesitting has been a great experience for us. We’ve really enjoyed spending time in places we wouldn’t necessarily have visited otherwise and having a “home” rather than a hotel to relax in. We’ve also loved spending time with the pets we’ve met and getting to know our hosts.

If you think this might be something you’d like to try, do your research. Visit the sites I’ve listed and look for others to find the one that best suits your own needs. Read through their rules and browse the available sits before becoming a member. It’s a different way to travel but it might just be right for you!

Knot Spots: Airline Response to Coronavirus

Spotted: vancouverisawesome.com

It seems a bit disingenuous to write about the joys of travel during the current coronavirus scare, when people are afraid to pass through airports or be entombed in airplanes with hundreds of unknown people from all around the world. Even those who would dare those risks are reconsidering travel plans when the very real possibility of quarantine looms large. No one wants to spend weeks in a windowless cruise ship cabin. (Shudder.) My own friends and family are canceling or postponing trips for these reasons.

Perhaps the airlines are starting to feel the pinch, as a note just popped up to say that Air Canada and WestJet will waive fees to change flights if you go ahead and book flights now (between March 4 and March 31 for AC and between March 3 and March 17 for WestJet). I’m guessing new bookings have plummeted to zero and they are desperate to get some cash flowing in. I suggest that ALL airlines and ALL hotels/accommodations follow suit or they will be completely shut down for the next few weeks, until the health situation stabilizes. No one is going to be crazy enough to book travel as long as there’s a good chance they will lose their money if they have to cancel.

Meantime, what I want to know is how will the airlines and hotels accommodate people who booked months ago and are scheduled to travel soon? Has anyone heard anything from them beyond “Tough luck”? I even wonder if travel insurance companies are going to cover any of this. (Doubtful.)

Willkommen/Bienvenu/Welcome

The next time you travel to an international destination, wouldn’t it be fun to meet a local who could speak your language and would take you on a themed walking tour, telling you all about their beloved home town?

When I stumbled upon the International Greeters Association website during our recent trip to France, I immediately loved the idea. When I found out the service is free, I loved it even more.

The first chapter of what would become IGA was founded in New York in 1992 by Lynn Brook. According to Big Apple Greeter: “On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know New York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome.”

The concept was a resounding success and the organization now covers 123 destinations, with over 3500 greeters.

The IGA has the following core values:

1) Greeters are volunteers.

2) Greeters welcome individuals and may serve small groups of up to six people.

3) Meeting a Greeter is free of charge.*

4) All visitors and volunteers are welcomed without discrimination.

5) Greeter organizations support sustainable tourism. Programs respect natural and man-made environments, bringing both cultural and economic enrichment to local communities. Programs aim for a lasting positive image of each destination.

6) Greeter organizations create a mutually enriching opportunity for cultural exchange; create links between people in creating a better world.

I connected through the Loire Valley Greeters site, where they feature hosts from six Loire cities, including Amboise, where we were staying. I was also able to specify my language of choice (English, because I’m an ignorant North American monolinguist) and a theme (history). Other themes included literature, architecture, local products, nature, and shopping. Once all those filters were applied, the site offered me several greeter options. I picked a friendly face and sent through my request for a date/time.

I quickly received a confirmation and a contact for our greeter, Charles.

Charles was a delight, full of enthusiasm and knowledge about the history of Amboise. He was well prepared for our visit and even carried a binder with visual materials to illustrate some of his stories. Together, we wandered through the old streets, with Charles chatting about specific houses or the general history of the area. We peered into courtyards and poked around in one of the lovely old churches, Église Saint-Denis. We had the opportunity to ask about things that had puzzled us. It was really like a stroll with your favourite teacher.

We were thrilled to discover this organization and to visit with Charles. My only regret is that I didn’t know about it earlier in our trip so that we could have met greeters in some of the other towns we visited.

*I was contacted later by the Amboise group to solicit feedback and to request a donation. I was happy to provide both, but it’s your option whether to donate.

Calidris Celebrates

My intrepid travelling companion and I. You can tell we’re on the road because he’s toting my camera backpack and I’m wearing my trusty Tilley hat.

I am very excited to announce this is my 100th blog post! This month also marks the third anniversary of this blog, which I started in December, 2016.

When I started out, my goal was simple: to publish at least one blog per week for one year. Once I achieved that, I gave myself permission to blog when the mood struck, but I’ve continued to post fairly frequently over the last two years. Part of my reason for blogging was to get myself writing regularly and sharing more of my work with the world. I really enjoy choosing topics and writing about them, although sometimes time is short and I don’t get to blog as much as I want to.

Travel blogging is a way for me to remember and record my thoughts and adventures. I must admit, I do go back and reread my old blogs to relive those memories.

I want to thank all of you for reading this blog. You’ve travelled with me to Nova Scotia, Thailand, Cambodia, California, Hawaii, Arizona, Louisiana, New York, Washington State, England, Wales, Ecuador, Yemen, Costa Rica, Australia, South Africa, Namibia, Germany, the Yucatan, Panama, and cruising the Caribbean. You’ve met members of my family and suffered through my opinions on a variety of topics. You’ve seen more photos of birds than you probably ever wanted to see.

I hope you’ve been intrigued, had a laugh, learned something, or mulled over an idea you hadn’t previously considered, and I sincerely hope you’ll continue to read along as I indulge my wanderlust.

PS Happy holidays!

Visiting the Panama Canal Locks

This is really a bit of a shaggy dog story but perfectly illustrates the challenges of navigating the confusing rules and contradictory information that often surrounds tourist sites, especially when one doesn’t speak the local language.

We figured we couldn’t visit Panama without seeing its most famous site, the canal, so I researched the options. Although the official websites are not very useful, offering only the most basic info, I found online reviews that provided better. The Miraflores Locks Visitors’ Center seemed like a good choice: it was reported that you could go in and eat in their restaurant overlooking the locks. With luck, a ship would come through the locks while you were there. One review mentioned that the visitor center posts the times that ships will pass through each day, so you can plan accordingly. Great.

We plan to visit the center on a Sunday and drop by in the late morning to find out when ships will be coming through. The center is large, modern, and seemingly well-organized. Air conditioning, escalators, lovely clean restrooms (always on the hunt for those when I’m travelling!) and lots of info about pricing for the exhibits and the giant Imax theatre.

There’s a pleasant young man fronting the entrance and I ask him about the restaurant: Do we need a reservation? Can we go inside to make the reservation in person for later today? (I’m cowardly about trying to communicate on the telephone in Spanish, so I figure a face-to-face with the restaurant maitre’d is a safer bet.)

Yes, we need a reservation. No, we can’t go in to make the reservation.

Hmmm.

Next, we check the “ships transiting” board. It hasn’t been updated for two days (a concern) and it indicates that there will be no ships going through between 9 am and 4 pm. Is that info accurate for today? We have no way of knowing.

Mark, the practical one in this duo, suggests we forget making a reservation and we simply return around 4 pm to dine. It’s unlikely to be full. We’ll have to take our chances on seeing a ship transit the locks.

Skip ahead a few hours and we return just after 4 pm. Mark approaches the ticket booth and asks if we need to pay the admission fee if we just want to go to the restaurant. She says no, just go upstairs to the fourth floor.

We start making our way up various stairways and ramps until we’re stopped by a couple of uniformed security guys who want to see our tickets. We don’t have any, we explain, we’re just going to the restaurant. No, apparently we do need tickets, and the guards send us to a kiosk. But as we’re walking away, one of them says, ticket is free. Sure enough, when we explain once again that we only want to go to the restaurant, the kiosk lady gives us free admission.

Now sporting our neon green wristbands, we are finally legit and we smugly ride the elevator to the fourth floor.

By this time, it’s 4:20. We enter the restaurant, a nice one, not a cafeteria or snack bar, but a sit-down place with linen tablecloths and actual servers. We tell the server who approaches us that we’d like dinner.

So sorry, restaurant is closing in 10 minutes.

What?! How can a restaurant that serves dinner close at 4:30? Besides, I remember some online reviews mentioning that they ate dinner at sunset while viewing the locks. Sunset in Panama is always around 6 pm (it doesn’t change much, unlike in our temperate zone).

It’s a mystery.

We’re very disappointed and the server can tell. He kindly suggests we could have a cold drink (always a welcome idea in the tropics) on the balcony. I jump on this, as it will at least give us a chance to see the locks, even though there is no ship at the moment.

He seats us on a small side balcony with a narrow view. Oh well, better than nothing. We linger over our drinks as long as possible, but eventually, we pay and start to leave. Then I see that there’s a much larger balcony that actually overlooks the locks. Ah, that’s where we really wanted to be. There are people wandering around out there.

Oh, I say to the maitre’d wistfully, could we possibly just pop out to the balcony for a moment?

“Of course,” she beams.

Out on the balcony, as we gaze at our much-expanded view up and down the canal, we can now spot a tanker just coming into the locks. That settles it: we’re out there for the long haul now.

Over the next hour, we get front-row views of the entire process as the locks fill/empty and the ship is towed through. The sun sets gloriously in the background. I keep throwing furtive glances at the restaurant inside as they shut it down, thinking any moment they will come and tell us to leave. But they don’t. There are lots of other people on the balcony and they obviously have no intention of leaving until the ship is through, so I guess the staff just don’t bother trying to clear the place.

And that’s how we got a perfect view of a ship transiting the locks without paying the admission fee or buying dinner. We had just the right combination of foreign cluelessness and naïve brashness. Sometimes—if you’re lucky—that works.

Panama Memories

With our recent three-week trip to Panama still fresh on my mind, I am sorting through some 1,500 photos. The best part about travel photos is that they remind you of moments from your trip that you might otherwise forget, and so I’m recalling the day-by-day highlights (and a few lowlights).

Highlights:

  • Howler monkeys waking us at dawn with their whoops and roars.
  • Plunging into the gorgeous pool at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort after a long, sweaty hike.
  • Watching a stately tall ship sailing up the canal.
  • Awe-inspiring tropical rainstorms that pound the roof and create torrents on the streets.
  • Feeling the whoosh of a hummingbird’s wings as it flies by your ear.
  • Bobbing in the warm waves off your own deserted beach at Playa Blanca.
  • A long, slender, brilliantly green snake visiting us on our hotel balcony at Morillo Beach.
  • Cheering for tiny baby turtles as they struggle across the sand to reach the sea.
  • Ripe papayas, bananas, pineapple, and passionfruit for breakfast.
  • Hiking jungle trails at dawn when everything is still dark and silent and the bugs haven’t yet arrived.
  • Nutella cheesecake and glorious local Kotowa chocolates in Boquete.
  • Seeing the flashes and rumbles of distant thunderstorms in the surrounding hills as you lounge in the mountainside pool at La Brisa del Diablo.
  • Superb dinners at La Brisa prepared by Olga.
  • Stripping down to your underwear to swim in an emerald crystal river because you didn’t bring a swimsuit and it’s so incredibly hot and you can’t resist and there’s no one else there anyway, so why not?
  • Witnessing the life-and-death battle of a hawk and black snake played out just a few feet from the road.
  • Tiny frog on the path, smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and giant cane toads bigger than grapefruits sharing our pool at The Golden Frog Inn.
  • The excited nightwatchman at our inn calling us over to show us a sloth climbing (very slowly) along the power lines.
  • French pastries at the St Honore bakery near Gamboa.
  • Flocks of gregarious and noisy parrots and parakeets congregating at their night roosts each evening.
  • Enjoying the technological majesty of the Panama Canal locks at close quarters.
  • Not stepping on a miniscule snake along the trail, a snake that I first thought was a big worm until it slithered away rapidly in typically snake style.

Lowlights

  • Mosquito bites on top of “chagira” bites on top of other bites. I don’t know what those chagiras are, but despite their size (a pinprick), they bite like horseflies and leave blood, swelling, and maddening itchiness behind. Oh, and did I mention the ticks? Yes, it’s a jungle out there.
  • Traffic around Panama City. Unbelievable. Multiple lines of cars, buses, taxis, trucks, and motorcycles fighting to move forward a few feet. The only guidelines seem to be: try not to hit anything or anyone. Beyond that, anything goes.
  • Potholes. The main roads are mostly good, with just the occasional pit to keep you on your toes, but some of the side roads are more holes than flat surfaces.
  • Losing my monopod. Sigh. In the excitement of trying to photograph a mixed flock of birds, I must have dropped my monopod and forgot to pick it up. It’s probably still lying in the grass at the road side.
  • Mexico City airport security confiscating the tiny Allen wrench from my photography kit. This was a piece of metal about two inches long and half as thick as a pencil. It has passed through many previous security scans without comment. “No pasa,” the guard said sternly. Mark commented later that they were clearly afraid I was going to attempt to disassemble the plane.

Calidris Reads: Less

Reading and traveling are two of my favourite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Less

Andrew Sean Greer

Read for: A quick and pleasant break from a round of historic novels I’d been ploughing through.

First sentence: “From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

A while back, I wrote about books that found me on my travels. As a perfect example of this, picture me and my stalwart companion noshing down at a trendy café during a recent trip to Lynnwood, Washington. One wall of the restaurant was covered with shelves and a couple of those shelves housed books, the kind of random mix of used volumes that usually signals a take one/leave one collection. I wasn’t really looking for anything, but as I gazed idly from my table, one book caught my eye.

Only the spine was visible, but it called to me from across the room, seducing me with its soft, retro-turquoise colour and enormous letters L-E-S-S.

Look at me, it whispered. I am beautiful. I am mysterious. I am intriguing. You will love me.

Resistance is futile. Drawn to the shelf like a puppet on a string, I pull down the book. Am I influenced by cover, celebrity endorsements, awards won? Yes (a clearly comical drawing of a man falling through the air while scribbling on paper), yes (Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, whose work I admire, says she recommends it), and yes (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Wow.).

Good comic novels are hard to find and this one is about a writer who goes travelling. Too perfect, eh? Picaresque is the word that springs to mind (defined by Wikipedia as “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road.”) There are brief but evocative descriptions of the places Arthur Less visits, including Mexico City, Paris, Berlin, Italy, Morocco, India, and Japan, as well as accompanying transport: airports, airplanes, buses, and camels.

It struck me mid-way through the book that this might be the first book I’ve read about a gay main character where that is not the central feature of the book. Certainly, Less is gay and has homosexual romantic/sexual adventures throughout, but that’s just one facet of his character among many. In other words, he is a character who is a writer and a traveller and a person turning 50 and a man who believes himself fluent in German when he is not, who also happens to be gay. At least that’s the way I see him. I’d be curious to know what a gay reader would say.

There wasn’t anything about this book I didn’t like. Less the character grows on you: the more you get to know him, the more you like him. His foibles become endearing rather than pompous. I enjoyed the travel tales and I found the writing both clever and engaging.

A good read, whether you’re on a journey or in your own comfy chair at home.

5 knots: Highly recommended (I’m sure the Pulitzer Committee is relieved to know that I agree with their decision.)