Friday, June 17, 2011
So the rotator flight actually got changed…being a private charter carrier with modern-ish aircraft, usually they’re right on schedule, but the 24 hour delay puts our BWI arrival behind our Southwest tickets home to San Antonio. Same thing happened last time, except it was my fault that time. Anna is starting to get morning sick, so we decided to just head down to the terminal and head back to the states today if possible. There were only 13 seats available on a KC10 (inflight refueling tanker) but we were the lucky ones (no luck actually…just a long time on leave already) and got on.
Our Plane out the Ramstein Terminal window.
Absolutely, positively the coolest flight ever! We climbed up the stairs and the 60 passenger seats were already half full with air crews sprawled out…even a 1-star general in a flight suit (he had a special car drive him to the plane.) The several teams were returning from a 8 week deployment. We had a row to ourselves (with 3 feet of leg room, yay…notice Anna’s crossed legs about 8 inches from the seat in front of her ) in the middle about 15 feet back from the cockpit door which was still open and we had a decent, if limited, view through it.
As I was doubting they we keep it open for take-off, one of the crew asked Anna if she wanted to sit up in the cockpit jumpseat for takeoff! Seriously! I couldn’t believe it. So she jumped up, got seated behind the general who turned out to be one of the pilots, and put on a headset through which she could hear the crew, air traffic control and other planes pilots talking.
After we got above 10,000 feet the boom operator (the guy that directs the gas nozzle into the receiving plane) told Henry to knock on the cockpit door when he was ready. Henry got the same treatment, headset and all.
The boom operator, Sgt Josh Bonner (I think), was so great with Henry answering all his questions. After the cockpit (I took a brief turn up there too, the view is spectacular) he took us back in the cargo hold (only the lower half of the plane holds fuel, there’s cargo in the rest of the top half) …
and then down to the very tail where the boom operator works.
He had Henry get in the operators seat… and push the lever to open the window (still glass…have to keep pressurized )and showed him some pictures on his laptop of them refueling fighter jets.
He then uncovered another window under Henry’s feet (which was a little disconcerting for a Dad that’s afraid of heights). Through the window we could see the English channel that we were flying over and even a large boat on the water.
Henry closed the windows and we headed back up passing the 20 or so spare tires they had brought with them for the deployment…one of which had blown out with a huge gash and back to our seats. Sometimes Space-A is not-so-lucky…but sometimes it is. Truly an unforgettable experience!
We got into McGuire AFB NJ around 7pm. The flight crews families were waiting for them on the tarmac to welcome them home from deployment which was a sweet sight. They all went up on the plane after we got off.
We got our bags, arranged for a van to take us in to the Philadelphia airport where we rented a car then drove to a hotel on the outskirts of Philly. It was 1030pm by now…the kids had fallen asleep on the shuttle and Henry fell back asleep on a chair while waiting for the car.
Our plan for tomorrow is to see some Philly sights in the morning then head down to D.C. to see Dave and Margaret again. Anna’s parents happen to be in town visiting them so it will be like a mini Hedengren reunion.
Wednesday May 25 2011
After sub par pain-au-chocolate—we’re becoming bread snobs, we packed up and headed into Beaune (A) to check out market day. We’ve all the other town’s market day so had to try this one even though it was the small market, not the giant Sunday one.
It took us a while to find it in the maze of streets but once we did we got a half kilo of beautiful cherries and some strawberries so it was worth it.
Lizzie made a mess though. Strawberries and cherries all over her dress and since it was her last clean dress Anna had to go do some shopping. (Anna—Yay!) We found an adorable little sun dress that has gotten her many a second look on the rest of our adventures.
Couldn’t pass up this lime tart before leaving, though.
It was time to start heading back to Germany and the quickest and most scenic route led us through the Alsace region. We stopped for lunch and playgrounds in Colmar(B). The playground was packed with kids since school is out on Wednesdays but the kids had a great time playing with the other kids. Language really doesn’t seem to get in the way when you’re on a playground.
After playing, two crepes, and candy necklaces for the kids we decided to go investigate the two beautiful church’s whose spires we could see from the park. Both were beautiful though we only went in the free one. The kids aren’t always as reverent as could be wished in cathedrals. This cathedral was one of my favorite. It has one of the more beautiful Christ statues I’ve seen, but maybe I just liked that it was a happy, non crucificed Christ benevolently holding his hands out. Kind of like "The Christus" statue at Temple Square in Utah except for in color.
After checking out the church we found some sandwiches and pretzels for lunch. The Alsatian chicken salad sandwich was the favorite of everyone and even though Dell had ordered it he kindly gave it to Anna and Henry and ate the curry chicken Panini instead. There were a few accordion players trolling the town center playing the stereotypical French accordion music…which seemed perfectly normal here.
The pretzels turned out to be a little hard but were perfect for feeding the pigeons. Henry and Lizzie were in heaven and Lizzie was especially cute when she crouched down in her super low squat and just hung out there at pigeon level watching the birds. A German couple stopped to watch her for a while. I tell you, it’s a great sun dress we got her.
Then a last ice cream and back to the car. We’re stuck in some pretty bad traffic now. In all our driving we haven’t seen any accidents, maybe the first one is up ahead.
…Well we made it back to Ramstein (C) and were able to get one of the family rooms. It’s feels like we’re already home with a Chili’s around the corner, prices in dollars and everyone speaking English, although I keep wanting to speak French to people. The room is only available for one night and the Rotator is flying out the day after so we’ll see able where to stay in the morning.
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Tuesday May 24 2011
Just one more push…a word about camping in France.
It’s not KOA, National Forest or National Park camping like in the US. The places are generally quite nice and predominantly used by retired folks in European sized campers (about a half as big as the normal US motor home or trailer.) They all have little playgrounds of varying quality and usually some other activity like mini-golf (which Henry and I played this morning), ping-pong, Wi-Fi, or a volleyball court. Most have real restaurants, like the one we ate at tonight. We’ve paid between 16 euro and 36 euro (the Chateaus costing more) per night. And they all have hot showers blocks with push buttons that provide about 20 seconds of hot water. So on the mornings when the air in the shower house is still chilly when after twenty seconds ends it’s really hard to resist the desire for just one more push.
Croissants, pain-au-chocolate, a quick round of mini-golf with Henry and we hit the road. We have dual GPS guidance (ours from home and the one that came with the car…we call the Hans and Leisel) which allows us to avoid the freeways and confidently travel the backroads, skipping the toll booths and seeing the villages and countryside. This morning we drove by several Loire valley strawberry farms while they were being harvested that looked so good I was tempted to pull over and beg them to sell me some. I missed a turn the GPS twins recommended but decided to drive on as the backroads all seemed to be pretty closely interconnected and luckily came across a farmers stand. We picked up 2 pints of perfect, freshly picked, heirloom variety (not gigantic, tasteless varieties) that were absolutely delicious. Lizzy was wild about them and almost ate a whole pint all by herself.
We continued on passing through cute little village after village that subtly shifted in architectural style at the kilometers ticked away before finally arriving at the Guedelon Castle site (Point B) in Burgundy.
This is the castle, almost halfway done, which has been under construction for just the last 15 years using only 13th century tools and techniques. It was awesome. What was surprising was that laying the stones was actually the easy part, quarrying, shaping and cutting the stones is the hard part. They had workstations set up for each of the components for building the castle—quarrying the stone, shaping the stones, basket weavers, woodcutters, carpenters, tilemakers, cloth dyers, blacksmith (stone cutters wear out several tools a day they say), mortar pit, farm, stable, and the old wooden fort that usually existed before the castle. (Watch the video at their website for a better feel) I wish we spoke better French, because people were asking the workers questions about their jobs and materials.
Henry’s favorite was watching them make the mortar….the kids are volunteers, the big guy is full time.
… Lizzy liked the donkeys and the wandering dogs…
…Anna liked the basketweaver…
At the tavern we all enjoyed perhaps the cheapest meal for four ever eaten in Europe since the introduction of the Euro—a surprising delicious 4 euro chicken stew and a bunch of hard rolls. There were tons of schoolchildren and a decent number of tourists there and we had a great time. They guys seemed to be well on their way toward realizing someones insane dream…maybe it would work in America :)
We drove another hour to Vezelay (point C) with it’s pilgrimage church famous for relics purported to be Mary Magdalenes bones (the Da Vinci Code referenced the apochryphal belief that she ended up in Provence, France).
There was some sort of service going on with cowled women doing some sequence of bows and such so I took the squeal-prone kids out and let Anna further investigate (not close enough to take a picture without intruding).
After Vezelay we continued east through Burgundy on the denouement of our French tour and stopped for the night in Beaune. Rick had recommended some expensive-ish restaurants here in wine country, but when we saw that the campground restaurant was open, pretty busy, reasonably priced and that there were other kids there we decided to side with convenience and give it a try. Turned out to be pretty good…especially the huge salads that preceeded our main courses. People say American portions are big, but when you order a “Menu” (a 3 course value meal) we got a lot more food than we would have at an American restaurant.
Sunday, June 5, 2011
May 23 2011Day 10
First a few more roadside poppy pictures.
We slept just outside of Angers (point A) in a nearly empty campground, may have opened recently for the summer or something. Although there were no warm croissants waiting for us in the morning, the manager was very friendly. In fact, when I asked for recommendations for the best Chateau to visit in the Loire she wrote down a list then suggested a campsite a friend of hers ran near Cheverny, one of the popular Chateau. She also got us directed to a nearby bakery before a severe butter deficiency set in. With a bag of the standard croissants, chocolate-au-pain, and a brioche in case of emergency, we headed out Chateau-ing.
Our first stop was in Chinon (Point B) where a fortress, that at various times had housed Richard the II (Lionheart), Charles the II (France) and Joan of Arc, sat perched on a hill above vineyards and the Loire. The castle had been partially reconstructed after falling into disrepair but still had a great feel to it.
View from the parking with some nice gorse (the yellow shrub).
Upon entry we were told to swipe the guidebook they gave us against these “E” symbols which would start English narrations for the areas we were in. Very clever bit of technology. There were also videos depicting events and people in the castles projecting on artful little screens set in the middle of the rooms which we all loved.
I think our favorite part was climbing up narrow tower staircases to the tower-tops then down even narrower passages to the dank dungeons.
Beautiful views of the Loire and Vineyards from the towers.
After Chinon we drove through quaint villages, pastures, and vineyards with their caves (we think it means wine cellar) to Usse for a quick look at the Chateau the inspired the Sleeping Beauty story (that’s two Disney castles we’ve got covered with Tangled being copied from Mont-Saint-Michel).
Then on the Chenonceaux (the bridge castle) with a brief stop for some pastries…still haven’t tried all the ones we want yet and only a few days left. At Chenonceaux (Point C) we first explored the maze…
…then walked by the stables…
…the cute gardeners cottage which seemed to be bursting with wisteria…
…and the formal gardens…
…before getting to the castle (partially under repair)…
…which spans the river Cher. Wow, an 8 picture sentence. The river was low due to the weather.
The ornate rooms were kind of standard castle fare, but the really cool part was the kitchens. Several rooms filling and spanning the piers in the river made of light cream stone with wooden furniture…
a big black stove that actually seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to cook on…
…and gleaming copper pots, pans and pudding moulds. Wouldn’t mind incorporating some of those themes into the dream house…or dream-chateau. On the way out we stopped to let the kids play in the kids area…
At this point we had decided to cut out the Dordogne portion of the planned trip due the arriving a few days later than expected and not wanting to drive the extra 8 hours over two days it would take to see it (plus $200 in gas), so we put it on the list for the next visit…maybe in two years…and went looking for a sit down dinner. We felt like Italian and found a suitable place in Blois (pronounced Blah). The kids meal came with a plate sized thin pizza, juice and ice cream (actually a decent price despite being 8 euros), I got their antipasta which had 4 little cups of toppings for the crunchy bread. I really don’t know what was in the things, but it tasted good and seemed pretty fancy-doodle to me…even had some kind of fish eggs in one. Anna had a three-cheese penne which turned out to be pretty strong flavored and I had a delicious eggplant lasagna. We all shared the kids ice cream for desert—a scoop of pistachio and one of white-chocolate.
Another roadside Loire chateau…Belvedere I think.
We decided to camp at the recommended campsite near Chiverny. The manager was a happy friendly guy even before I gave him the message from the campsite manager in Anger. We’re getting pretty speedy at setting up camp…under 10 minutes to have everything ready…and let the kids play at the playground for a while.
They even have a common room available with Wifi and plugs which makes this a more comfortable, if less scenic, place to log than any others I’ve had recently. Tomorrow we’re looking forward to visiting a castle that is being constructed from scratch by a bunch of history buffs using only 13th century techniques which is halfway complete with only another 13 years to go. As I’ve been toying with this idea of building a medieval village as a hobbyist/tourist attraction somewhere in the States it may be useful. Reality check—I know to do it the way it would need to be done would probably be prohibitively expensive, but dreaming is free :) …and hey, these guys seem to be doing it.