Thursday, May 31, 2018

Versailles France - Fit for a King (and Queen)

On Memorial Day Monday we left our lovely little farm "Peacock Mews" near the
English Channel Tunnel (The Chunnel) and headed to France.

Having turned in our right hand side drive car we took a Folkestone Taxi.

The taxi is one way to get the dogs across the channel.
Dogs can ride in your own car on the Chunnel Train, or on the Ferries.
Since we were not taking right hand drive car to France, those options were out and
we would have had to put them in a kennel on a ferry - not something that we wanted to
do to them after 7 days at sea last week.

So enter the Folkestone Taxi.
Operating out of Folkestone UK, the taxi takes pets and we then can take the train
as they ride in comfort in the taxi for the short 30 minute trip thru the tunnel.
(a ferry takes several hours)

Our driver picked us up at 0730 for our 0850 train and in about 10 minutes we were driving into
the Chunnel Complex and getting Qued up for our train.

Crossing the many tracks on a bridge, ramps lead down to the train platforms.

Ramp down to loading platform of Le Shuttle

At the bottom of the ramps you drive along the platform and are directed into a door of the train.

Ramp down to loading platform

Inside the train we are ready for the quick trip to France.

On Le Shuttle - The Chunnel Auto Train

Arriving in Calais - our driver drove us the 10 minutes to where we picked up our
Renault EuroDrive Leased Vehicle.

The EuroDrive Program by Renault or Peugeot is a special program for non-EU Citizens where
we can lease a car....  just like you would in the states.
The difference is that my lease is for 3 months - not 3 years.

The car is in my name with a French Registration and insurance included.

Prior to signing on - I specified exactly what vehicle I wanted so unlike with a rental car where
you wind up with whatever they have on the lot - I knew exactly what I was getting.

When the lease is over - the car will be sold to a rental car company as a used car, and
the rental car company will save a boatload of tax.

For me - its cheaper than renting and I get a brand new car.  This one had 6 miles on it.
Its a win-win program.

I specified this car being (hopefully) large enough to hold the luggage that I had projected
to be carrying a year ago when I planned the lease and fortunately we were able to squeeze everything in and we are finally motoring around like Royalty.

Lots of room - all filled in.

Our car - a 2018 Renault Talisman Initial Paris - their flagship vehicle, is all options 
and loaded with goodies such as 4 wheel steering, all leather interior, heated and 
cooled seats just to name a few of the perks.

Our Renault Talisman initiale Paris Estate

Our 3+ hr drive to Versailles, just outside of Paris, was spent trying to figure out how to
use some of the goodies such as the adaptive cruise control.
About 90 min into the drive I finally figured that one out.   
A switch on the console between the seats was the key.

The manual is in French with no English Section so once we arrived
 at our home for the next 5 days I downloaded an English Manual.

The car also has an auto parking feature but I had not figured out 
how to use that in time for our arrival.
Europe is noted for many very tight parking spots and somehow I managed 
to squeeze the car into this spot on my first try.

Perhaps the 4-wheel steering was a big help?
I just hope that I can get it out.

Tight squeeze - note the pole in front of the car

Our Air BnB in Versailles is a lovely flat on a tree lined street
just steps from the Palace of Versailles.

We access our flat on the 5th floor by a small Parisian Elevator.

Our building was built in 1864, and has been owned by the same family since then.
Only family members may own a share of the buidling
Currently there are about 400 of them who live here.
Holidays see family celebrations with over 150 in attendance!

The basement has a maze of rooms and tunnels that lead to several places including the
Palace of Versailles and during the war - the building was used
to hide Jewish Families from the Nazis.

Upon arrival we were warmly greeted by our host, Thibaut, who spent almost an hour
informing us of the history of the building and the city,  plus gave us a ton of tips about
restaurants and shortcuts that helps us to see Versailles more like a local than a tourist.

All aboard for our ride up to the 5th floor.

Outside our door are sidewalk cafes, and around the corner
 is the 2nd largest food market in France.

We went to the market to provision for some meals at home.

Versailles indoor-outdoor food market

Just a sample of the provisions that we obtained on our first outing.
Salads, Small Pizzas, some Chicken Cordon Bleu, a roasted chicken, fruits, veggies, 
a couple of quiches, and a delicious fresh Fruit Tart.

Some food for our next 5 days

The local bakery

A typical Versailles boulangerie

The view from our window.
Thunderstorms have rolled in each evening.
Then fireworks lit up the sky over the Palace.

It seems that the doodles are all of a sudden no longer bothered by storms or fireworks!
They are such good travelers and immediately adapt to whatever new circumstance
that they find themselves in.  Probably better than most people.

The view towards Palace from our flat

No trip to Versailles would be complete without a visit to the Palace of Versailles.

It served as the principal residence of the French King from Louis XIV in 1682 until
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette fled at the start of the French Revolution in 1792.

Much of the Park surrounding the Palace is free and dog friendly, but to see the inside
you need a pass.   We purchased a 2-day pass for €30 each.

The below photo of the Hall of Mirrors was taken from the internet since
trying to get a good photo with all the people is pretty hard and I wanted to give you a good
idea of what it actually looks like.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors
While originally an outdoor terrace - the hall was built over 6 years and completed in
1684.  The sheer number of mirrors (over 300), which were extremely rare and expensive
at the time, paid testament to the power and wealth of France.

Just a simple place with a good paint job

View of the Royal Courtyard
The Gallery of Battles is a 160 meter (524 ft) room that glorifies French military history from
the battle of Tobiac in approx 496 thru the battle of Wagram in 1809

The paintings are arranged chronologically up the left side of the picture, and then
back down on the right.

Gallery of Battles
About midway down the right side is a painting of General Rochambeau with
General George Washington at the siege of Yorktown - where the combined forces of
the French and Americans defeated the British in the final battle of the
Revolutionary War

The siege of Yorktown
The wonders of the palace is not confined to the interior.
Surrounding the palace are the most amazing gardens, and man-made lakes.

The Grand Canal, in the distance below - is shaped like a cross and is over a mile long.
It was used for boating by the King & guests, and on its shore, a Venetian Village housed Gondolas,
and Gondoliers given as a gift from the kingdom of Venice.

The view from the palance
The fountains were engineering marvels at the time as they required water to be pumped 
up from the Seine River to a height of 100m above the fountains to provide the water pressure, 
then piped to the fountains from the reservoir miles away.

The park around the palace... just a short walk from our flat - is our playground.
Each day a long walk with the dogs thru the beautiful green countryside..

along the geometrically organized tree lined cobblestone boulevards or
dirt walking paths.

From the park we get another perspective of the palace.

Palace of Versailles from the Grand Canal

The Grand Trianon

In the northwest corner of the massive Palace landmass lies another Versailles.

First there is the Grand Trianon

Built by Louis XIV as a retreat from court for he and his mistress, it was also used by
invited guests to escape the rigid formalities of life in court.

Grand Trianon

While still opulent - it seems more relaxed and approachable than the Palace

this is essential the family room of the Grand Trianon
The council room below is where the King would meet with his ministers.

Grand Trianon Council Room
The Empress Bedroom

View of the Gardens which fill the complex

The massive gardens surrounding the Grand Trianon and beyond fill the air with
the wonderful scents of fresh flowers.

The Petit Trianon

The Petit (or little) Trianon was built by Louis XV on the grounds of the Grand Trianon,
although you can not see one from the other due to the distance and gardens that surround both.

The Petit Trianon was built simply as a place for Louis XV's mistress who died prior to it's
completion, so Louis housed his next mistress there instead.

Upon Louis XV's death in 1774 Louis XVI gave it to his new bride Marie Antoinette who
used it as her get away from court.

It is said that only the Queen could allow someone on the grounds and that not even the
King could come without her approval.

This supposedly infuriated the members of court, that this "foreigner" could wield such power.

The Petit Trianon
The scent of rose and jasmine filled the air as we strolled about.

On the first floor of the Petit Trianon lies the servant facilties.
Below is the reheating room.
Since the food was prepared a distance away - it was brought here for the fininshing
touches, and then reheated prior to being laid out for meals.

Petit Trianon Reheating Room
Below is the drawing room.
A 16th century version of a family room.
Marie Antoinette would entertain guest here and listen to music.

Petit Trianon Drawing Room
The wood carving detail on the walls thru out all of the properties is amazing.
The skill of the craftsman is evident.

In this room, the music trophies are decorated with the Louis XV monogram,
consisting of 2 L shapes depicting Myrtle leaves,
entwining three natural fleur-de-lys set beneath a crown of roses.

The view of the gardens from the windows of the Petit Trianon.

This was Louis XV and later Marie Antoinetes bedroom

Between the Petit & Grand Trianion an arbor covered in jasmine fills the air with
the most beautiful scent.

Marie Antoinettes Village

Last, but certainly not least on our speed tour of the Versailles Palace Complex was
a visit to  Hameau de la Reine - The Hamlet of the Queen.

Marie, a native of Austria, was very unhappy with life at court.

Homesick, Louis XVI gave her a plot of land upon which she set about re-creating a village
in the theme of her homeland.

It had a farm, dairy, and all the needs of a self sustaining village.

It is said that she would spend time here dressed in peasant clothes and tending the gardens.
This unintentional mockery of the French peasantry led further to her distain.

Below - the mill was never used to mill grain.

The Marlborough Tower was decorative.

Le Colombier below was basically a house for birds.
Doves, and rare poultry from the west of France were brought for breeding and
care, to be enjoyed by the queen at her leisure.

Le Colombier south side

Le Colombier North side

The Mill with the Queens house in background on the left.

We have one more day left in Versailles.
We had thought about taking the dogs on the metro train and heading into Paris,
but I think we shall just spend one more day here enjoying
the expansive parkland of the Palace.

We have been doing over 5 miles each day before my work day starts at 3pm
(which is 9am in New York)

I think their little paws might enjoy a lighter workload for a day.

On Saturday we have a 5 hr drive to Annecy France which is called the "Venice of France".
When we post next from Annecy - you will see why that is so.

Till then adios...
or should I say au revoir.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Arriving in the United Kingdom

On Thursday May 24th I was up at 0500 as I wanted to watch as the Harbor Pilot
drove the big monster of a ship into it's berth at the Southampton Ocean Terminal.

Luggage (9 pcs) outside the door the night prior to arrival

It was interesting to watch as we arrived broadside to our berth, then he gently eased
 over 1100 feet of ship into reverse
and then turned the ship over 90° and backed it gently into it's berth.
By 0630 lines were cast, she was tied to the dock and our passage was complete.

Broadside to our berth

Lines are affixed in Southampton

Disembarkation was a breeze.
We had cleared British Customs while enroute a few days before, and the dogs paperwork had
been emailed, so all we had to do was walk off of the ship.
We were in England!

All the dogs (and owners) head down en-masse

So with our voyage complete I wanted to recap some of the pros and cons about taking
the Queen Mary 2 across the Atlantic.

Before I do however let me warn you.
When I finished writing, I realized it came out mostly as a bitch session.
In retrospect there was a bunch of annoying thorns in the trip that just got under my skin
and it came out in this post, so sorry for the tone - this is not my normal way to roll,
but my comments/critiques might be interesting to someone considering this trip.

So...  You can avoid the bitch session by dropping down to the heading
Arrival in Southampton at the bottom

The Pros:

Its a much slower and relaxing pace with no jet lag. (especially if you don't have dogs)
There is a lot to see and do on the ship if you like shows, casinos, lectures, movies, etc etc.
You can find something to eat about 22hrs out of the day,
If you are like me... there is just something great about crossing an Ocean at sea level.
The Kennel Master Oliver, and assistant John are the absolute best.
You can trust them 100% with your pet.
You will meet some wonderful fellow pet owners and form some great friendships.
Most of the lower wage staff are warm and hospitable.
If you like taking cruises and would like to do a Transatlantic...
the QM2 will give you the smoothest ride.

The Cons:

Cunard still maintains a remnant of the old Class System.
There are three distinct Classes on board:

Britannia and Britannia Club  (Aka Steerage and Steerage Plus)
Princess Grill  (Business class - the netherworld between Steerage & Royalty)
Queens Grill   (The Upper Crust)

Just like Jack Dawson on Titantic...  there were places on the QM2 where the unwashed
masses (like me)  were not allowed to venture.

Its not so much that I mind it that much...
Its just seems a bit dated in  2018 plus I had to find ways to navigate around those areas
when I transited from point A to B at times.

Cunard brags about their White Glove Service where you can get just about anything...
They push this image that they are adhering to quality standards of a bygone era....
But in practice when I put that to the test they failed miserably.
The food - while plentiful and varied - seems like food at a wedding reception.
It was good, but it certainly was not special at all. 

We are made to feel that Cunard regards us as cash machines that need to be nickled
and dimed as much as we will allow.  Being captive audiences the prices would go up
and down as supply and demand would dictate, all the while trying to maximize the yield
out of each of us.

A glass of house wine or a Martini was about $17!
The bar bill adds up real fast!

A glass of Diet Pepsi is not included in the fare.   I think the price is almost $4.00 and its not
even a full can!    So on day 1 & 2 they have the wait staff who take the drink orders selling
all sorts of drink programs.    I sprung for the Soft Drink plan that was 
a bit over $60 and would include soda, club soda etc.

The problem was that on day 5 and beyond it became almost impossible to find someone
to take your drink order.    While the first few days I would have 3 or 4 come over....  by the 
end of the trip I went several lunches without getting someone to bring me a Diet Pepsi.

Dog owners were told (in writing) that all our dogs food would be on board and
that they would receive fresh baked gourmet dog cookies each day.

Some of the owners did not have any of the correct food.   We were missing 1/2 of
the food, and the fresh baked dog cookies did not show up till day 5 even though
Oliver called the kitchen every day to request them.

Getting something for the kennel turned out to be faster & easier if you called room service 
and brought it up yourself for the dogs.

Owners who have made this trip many times says that this is the norm.

Mind you - the two dogs cost $2000 total to make the passage, so its not a cheap
proposition and at least having the food orders correct is not asking too much.

At least 1/2 of the dog owners. like us, did not really take advantage of the
amenities of the ship.   We were too busy visiting our dogs.
This saves Cunard a lot of money too. 
So when we asked for some afternoon tea to be brought up...  and it never happened...
again - this just seems like such a failure to perform.
A case of White Glove Failure!

Twice on our passage our toilet water started to run and would not shut off.
It flooded our bathroom and we piled up towels and our bathrobes to keep it from flooding
into our stateroom.   This happened about 6am once and 4am the second time.

It was nothing that we had done - just perhaps the ships systems are showing their age.
They got all under control and in about 40 minutes our floor was dried and clean towels
and robes replaced but there was no going back to sleep after that.

Not once did Cunard offer as much as a free candy bar to say they were sorry and
to compensate us in a small way for our trouble.
I'm sure if I raised a fuss they would have done something...
but why should I have too?
If you have to raise a fuss to get some courtesy why bother?

Finally - Not needing our formal wear, we decided to take advantage of
Cunards Bag Storage Program, where they will store your bag on shore
and deliver it to your next stateroom when you depart back to the US.

For 5 months this would have cost us over $200 per bag!
Quite pricy, but I still decided that we could use the room in the car so I would pay the 
money for the convenience.

I went down to the Pursers Office a day before we arrived only to find that I had missed 
the deadline by about 12 hrs or so. and that they would not put me on the list.

I gave them an opportunity to put that White Glove Service to the test and make an exception
but nope....   it was either too much trouble or they just did not want to send another email
to shore to let the shore crew know that they had one more bag to store!
Honestly...  the logistics can't be that difficult to accommodate another bag.

So after having early morning toilet explosions 2 out of ouf 7 mornings...
 or about 29% of our mornings on board.... 
and never once did I give them even the slightest static about it....
they still could not do me a small favor?

Ok... so now that bag will be in the back of the car for the next 5 months as a reminder
of their lack of extending some slight crumb of proper customer service.

So... if this sounds like a Major League Bitch Fest..  Sorry about that,
but I want you to know that if you...  like me.... go into this believing the hype
 about this being a trip back into time with impeccable White Glove Service...
you are probably going to be disappointed.  
I sure was.

To me it was no different than any other cruise line.
Only with a remnant of the old English Class System still in existence.

Just because they tell you that you have to dress like its 1912 does not make 1912.

Arrival in Southampton

Now that this is off of my chest...  I'll tell you about driving on the wrong side of the
road and getting stuck in round abouts and making several trips around till I could get out.

For me it was quite freaky - my first time driving on the "wrong" side.
I did not get to settle into some nice interstate driving but had to head into the city
with the traffic and round-abouts as my initiation.

 Getting the car - I had to go back to the dock to pick up Kate and the dogs.
I had packed the luggage in and there was hardly room for Kate - never mind the dogs.

It took me quite a while to get back as I missed turns, when around the round abouts
several times trying to get out of them....
I missed some turns...
All part of getting my brain used to driving on the left, watching for traffic,
and navigating at the same time.

Needless to say - it was not pretty at first, but I managed to get back without incident.
So my bar was set pretty low for this trip..
 If I arrived without a head on collision - I would call it a resounding success!

Moments of terror
In the afternoon we hit the mall for sim cards and office supplies for work.
At 610pm we had an appointment with a Vet to get the Doodles Pet Passports.

With these little beauties in hand - we would be legal for 5 months in the EU
(our health certicates obtained in the US are only valid for 4 months)
Plus now we can return to the EU without needing to go thru all the hurdles.

The Doodles are officially EU Citizens
We stayed at a lovely inn about 10 miles outside of Southampton in Lyndhurst.
It is right across the street from the New Forest with miles of green grass and
walking trails.

It is a dog friendly place and we stayed in a small cottage off of the main inn.
It had a kitchenette so that we could self cater,
plus they had a nice restaurant which we ate at one night
and had a fine meal.

Pinewood Cabin at Ormonde House Hotel
The walk to town was 10 minutes at most.

Lyndhurst UK
Our third and final night we went out for some Italian food.
Just about 600' from our lodgings, it was a small slice of Pasta Heaven.
My Linguine Carbonera was out out this world.

Dinner in Lyndhurst
On Sunday, with all of our provisioning complete, it was time to head off on the
start of our explorations.

Enroute to our 1-night stay near Dover, we made a side trip to
Downton Abbey - which is really known as Highclere Castle

Downton Abbey - Highclere Castle
The castle is only open on limited days a year, ticket sales are also limited, but it worked out
that one of the few days in the spring was when we were going to be nearby, so I planned our
travels to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.

The castle seems to be in need of some TLC. 
While certainly not shabby, I am sure that during its heyday it was in much more pristine conditions.
Worn rugs, torn wall paper peeling paint and some water damage are evident thru out the castle.

It certainly did not distract all all from our enjoyment,
I merely mention this to tie the present to the past as portrayed in the series.

The cost of maintaining estates like this are huge as any of you Downton Abbey fans would know.

Scones, Clotted Cream, jam, Coffee
We had afternoon coffee and scones on the grounds.

Many of the rooms had photos taken during the show strategically placed, so that you could envision the shows characters moving about their daily lives.

They do not allow photos to be taken inside so unfortunately we are unable to share that portion
of our visit or have them for our own remembrances.

When we arrived at the grounds - there turned out to be a huge fair going on outside of the
estate and much much more traffic was headed to the fair.

So - like a fool - I thought they were all headed to the castle, and the workers directed me
into this huge field with rolling hills where hundred and hundreds of cars parked.

We parked, then walked about 1/2 a mile to find out we were in the wrong spot - but could walk to
the castle.   So we headed off in that direction only to find out at the castle gate,
that dogs were not allowed.

So I told Kate to go inside while I and the dogs would walk back, find the car, and move it up to
the castle parking area where I could find a shady spot for them.

Heading back to the car....   I could not find it.
There were hundreds of cars and the rolling hills made it quite difficult.

I was starting to wonder if I might have to wait until everyone left
before I might be able to find our car!

After another mile or two of hiking thru sheep patties, we finally found the car and headed to
the castle parking area.  By now the Doodles and I had about 4 miles under our belt.

As I drove to the parking area,  the men directing me to the Castle parking area
saw that I had dogs, so he radioed the next guy that I had dogs,
and the next guy radioed the third that I had dogs....
and on and on till we arrived at the castle parking area.
 where they escorted me to a nice shady spot beneath and enormous tree!

Now that is White Glove Service!

Leaving Downton, we had a 2 1/2 hr drive to our one-night stay at an AirBnB in
the countryside outside of Dover.

To get there we drove down some of the smallest roads I've ever been on.
Tall trees or shrubs lined the road and there was barely enough room to keep from getting
scratched by the bushes.    And this was a 2-way road.
If you meet another car - one has to back up to the closest wide spot.

We emptied the car into our cottage as I had to return it to Enterprise in anticipation
of our Taxi/Tunnel ride to France in the AM.

Do we know how to stuff a car or what?

A full trunk - whoops,  I mean "boot" - too!

Our home for the night is a lovely 1 Bedroom cottage on the grounds of a farm
called Peacock Mews.
There are horses, burros, dogs, cats, chickens and roosters, a peacock, geese,
and probably more creatures that I've missed.

Our host is a wonderful man who instantly made us feel at home.

Cottage on right - main home in distance

The Doodles loved to watch the Chickens & Rooster

The Rooster Crows for thee!
Tomorrow its off to France and back to the right side of the road.

Ready or not.... here we come.