24 September 2015

The steepest road in North America or is it?

As this was taken from inside the car, it doesn't show the gradient
Ever since Lindsay heard there were bears in Bella Coola he has wanted to go there. Me, not so much, you see we had heard horror stories about the road in. They call it the Freedom Highway. It's the steepest road in North America, it's narrow, windy, unpaved and wait for it, has an 18% grade. What does 18% mean anyway? Shouldn't that be degrees? It descends for 43kms, with 9km of very steep descent. Anyway, it sounded scary. Maybe not for a car, but we would be towing a heifer lump of a trailer behind us. We rang the ferry to see how much it would cost, but they said they were booked up for the next few weeks, did we want to go in mid October?

An aerial view of the switchbacks - Photo from: Bella Coola Blog
It was just over 1,100 kms from when we got off the ferry from Vancouver Island. Drive down Canada 1 to Hope and continue on it north. We stopped off the first night at a rest stop along with a few other people, no signs to say we couldn't. At Williams Lake you take Highway 20 west. Further along the road we came across a serious accident where a logging truck had pulled down about five power poles on the opposite side of the road he would have been travelling and then rolled over and off the other side. Logs were still strewn everywhere and we think a few had gone through the cab. It's a dangerous profession.

Clayton's Falls - BC Hydro make power out of these falls
The bitumen stops at Anahim and we kept going for a bit finding a pull out along the way to spend our second night as I didn't want to tackle the descent in the late afternoon when we were tired.

It's autumn and the fall colours are beautiful

It rained most of the night and all of the morning. When we got to the top of the mountain, the rain turned to sleet, which then turned to snow. Before we knew it, the road had a white blanket covering the dirt. We passed a sign that said "all vehicles must carry chains", ahh, we don't have chains and we couldn't put them on the trailer anyway as the tyres are too close together. The next sign said "Avalanche Area", the following one had a picture with falling rocks. Just peachy. Are we having fun yet? As we started to go down "The Hill" the snow turned back to rain, and the first sign said 9%, then 11%, the most we saw was 14%. Having a 4WD, Lindsay went down in low range, alternating between the gears. Yes it was narrow, yes it was windy with a few hairpin bends and switchbacks. Was it 18%, apparently a small section between two switchbacks. And don't look over the side, especially when the road is only one vehicle wide. When we reached the sealed road again, I said to Lindsay "is that it?" as in, is there another section, a scary one? All that worry for nothing. Look if you didn't have a 4WD and you were towing, it probably wouldn't be advisable. Our camp host said some people find it so horrific, they get a local to drive their camper up or they wait there for sometimes weeks until there is a spot on the ferry to take them around to Vancouver!

We stayed in an RV park in Hagensborg, 15km east of Bella Coola. 40km west of the bear viewing platform. This turned out to be the closest place as the campground at Fisheries Pool only had a few spots and we weren't sure if we would have fitted in. Where we were we had full hook up and internet.

Our friends from the Netherlands, Dirk and Connie had already been there a few days, this is their fourth time here, so they know the area well and knew the right time to come.

Lindsay, Jane and Dirk taken by Connie

There are really only two areas to see the bears and they are both in the area known as Stuie, not Bella Coola - which doesn't quite have the same ring to it. An area where the float boats put in has been fenced off with an electric fence, a few tables and an undercover area. We nicknamed it the playpen, as we weren't allowed anywhere out of the enclosure and have to ask to leave - a park ranger or volunteer would then take us a few metres down to the car park - it's a joke. The other area is called Fishermen's Pool. So far this area is open but the rangers still patrol it. The valley has a number of trails to walk if you don't mind walking in bear country. We tried to find another area down near the river and walked through the rainforest. Calling out "hey bear" every few minutes just to make sure we didn't scare one and hoping that they would run away. Even though we were looking for bears, you want them to know you are there and have a safe distance between you. The trails were very confusing as many snaked around and criss crossed each other and I doubt I would have found my way back to the road by myself. We never did find the river.

There was a cute little red fox that had really dark colourings. People have obviously been feeding him as he comes right up to you.

The playpen closed on the last day of September and as if on cue, the bears disappeared. Our friends Jerry and Myra came up from Idaho right at this time. The first float trip they did, they didn't see anything and when you have paid $300 that can be really disappointing. The boats seemed to have a 50% bear viewing success rate. Jerry was determined to keep trying and booked another trip. The first one they did was in the morning, so I suggested an afternoon one just to mix it up and as a bonus they wouldn't have to get up at 4:30 in the morning. Another bonus was that they were allowed to go to the private Tweedsmuir Lodge viewing platform beforehand where they saw two bears. This platform is halfway between the playpen and Fisheries pool. Luckily they saw four bears on the next boat trip, and on another trip they saw six.

We had planned to spend two weeks in the valley but the weather was supposed to turn the day we going to leave, so as insurance we brought it forward a day. On the way to the bottom of the hill the tyre sensor started beeping. Crap, we had a flat tyre, our first one. On the up side, it happened on the flat and not half way up "the Hill". As we were leaving a local told us that Tuesday's was the day the grocery truck came in and we had heard that it wasn't a small truck, it was your everyday semi. Luckily we passed him after we reached the top.

13 September 2015

They burnt a saint

Rouen's Notre Dame

There are a couple of places in France that do a illumination show - where they project a light show onto a building and synchronise it with music. They do this at the Notre Dame in Rouen. We timed dinner so that we would be at the church in time for the 9:30pm start. It was a real highlight. There were two stories - the first was of the Vikings and the second was for Jean d'Arc.

Rouen is where Jeanne d'Arc was burned at the stake in the 15C. She was the teenager who received political visions and instruction from other saints. Not a good thing to admit to. She supported Charles VII and wanted to free France from England's domination. Twenty five years after her execution, they decided she was innocent.  Oops, too late. Napoleon made her a national symbol and in 1920 she was canonised. There are some who say she escaped, but I doubt it. Amazingly they still have her trial records.

Bullet holes from WWII
Many of the beautiful buildings such as the court house and some of the churches have bullet holes from WWII. Like most churches in France, they removed the stained glass from the churches during 1939. Six thousand bombs where dropped on Rouen on April 19, 1944. It's a wonder anything is left.

The Court House
An unloved church
Parts of the church retained for the day they can be put back where they belong
The historic sector of the city is full of half timbered medieval buildings and narrow winding cobbled streets.

So, I wonder what the floor is like in that room...
Our GPS couldn’t find our B&B in Rouen. Google could because it knows where we are staying and marks them on the map (scary I know) so it took a bit of retracking to find the spot, even then I thought I’d made a mistake. It was on a busy road full of boring modern buildings and a light rail. The address we had just showed us some back metal gates. When you got inside, it was like an oasis: a beautiful garden hid the house at first, as you moved between the plants, it opened out to show an ivy covered maison. Inside had been recently decorated to a modern colour palette while keeping a mixture of the old and new which was gorgeous. Franc met us at the gate and showed us to our room. The pictures on the web don’t do it justice, it is beautiful. And the bathroom is the biggest on our trip with a doorless shower with a rainshower shower head. Lindsay was in heaven.

Franc invited us downstairs for a drink with another couple from England and we had an enjoyable chat over beer and cider with pistachios. You can tell Franc loves having guests to stay and he is very enthusiastic about everything. His guests come from everywhere – and while many can't speak French, they can usually speak English even if they are from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands or Japan. So Franc has started to take lessons in English so he can converse more with his guests.

11 September 2015

The Normandy D-Day Beaches

the beaches offered no cover at all
The area we have been travelling is called Normandy. When most people think of Normandy, they think of D-Day in 1944. When the Allied troops (US, Canadian and British - some Australian air force personnel served under the British) invaded Normandy to drive the Germans out of France. The D-Day beaches where it all happened are just north of Bayeux. We went to a number of beaches – Juno, Omaha and Pointe du Hoc.

Pont du Hoc

We watched a documentary on You Tube about the ‘real story’. At the museum we were told that they used amphibious tanks, but they forgot to mention that all but two of them sank as they had been tested in still water, not with waves. Many of the soldiers had been given a large breakfast and got seasick, so were in no condition to fight. When they opened the front of the boats to go on land, they were sitting targets, and many got shot. So those left had to do what they had been warned specifically not to do and that was to jump over the side. Many drowned as their equipment just dragged them to the bottom of the sea. Many of the grapple hooks the rangers used to scale the cliffs couldn’t be used as they got soaked with sea water on the trip over which made it impossible to shoot them up the cliff. I think telling us the truth would have enhanced what they actually did achieve against all those odds.

Shows where a bomb hit - the sheep are an experiment to see if they can keep the grass down
The cliffs at Pont du Hoc

We also watched the movie The Longest Day which apparently is a good depiction of the battles.

Lindsay outside one of the German bunkers

The Bayeux Tapestry museum houses the tapestry, a movie and some information that they learned from the tapestry, you are given an audio guide to explain the story. The ‘tapestry’ is actually embroidery and is about 70 metres long and is nine centuries old. It's amazing it hasn't fallen to pieces. Before it was put in the museum it used to be hung up around the church. It depicts the events that lead up to the 100 years war. The starring roles are that of William the Duke of Normandy and Harold Godwinson who became King of England during the story. King Edward promised the throne to William as he had no heir. But Harold took the throne. The battle of Hastings in 1066 is between these two to fight for the throne. Harold is killed, so William becomes King.

They think it was actually embroidered in England.

Part of the Bayeux Tapestry - before I was told off for taking photographs!
Our B&B in Bayeux was a beautiful 18C house that has been beautifully decorated. Our room was large with a modern bathroom with double sinks. Our host Pascal was very helpful and the breakfast was the best on our trip. Along with the normal French menagerie, he would bake a quiche or a plum pie. The location was perfect, just a stroll across the park and down one street and you were at the Cathedral and in town.

Typical of the towns we drove through along the coast

9 September 2015

The Abbey on the Island

Mont St Michel

While I felt I was getting better in Epernay, I suffered a relapse the following day. Our B&B was in a perfect location, only a short walk into the town with a view of Mont St Michel from the carpark. The town of Mont St Michel is not much, just a few restaurants and hotels. There is a free shuttle bus that takes you out onto the causeway and we went after dinner to get some pictures of it lit up at night. Unfortunately it wasn’t high tide which would have been nice for the photos, but you can't always get all of your ducks in a row. The mud flats where too wet and sticky to go walking on, and since I read that it can be like quicksand, I decided to stay on the bridge.

Looking up

Pontorson is the nearest town of a decent size, it's a lovely old town with many shops, restaurants etc. We were getting worried about our colds; we had antibiotics but things didn’t seem to be improving, so we went to the pharmacy and added to our growing medicine cabinet.

A narrow very touristy walk up to the Abbey
During the day we decided to brave the crowds and go up and see the Abbey on the island. There is only one cobbled street lined with shops which is quite narrow. There are a lot of steps leading up to the Abbey but we just didn’t have the stamina to get all the way to the top, which was such a shame.

7 September 2015

Vintage Bubbles

Grape vines in the Abbey at Hautvillers
Our first stop outside Paris was the town of Epernay where they make Dom Perignon Champagne. 

We had been invited on a special tour of the Abbey at Hautvillers – the birth place of Dom Perignon champagne and the resting place of the monk Dom Perignon. The monks at Hautvillers’ motto was work and prayer, and their work was making wine. Dom’s object in life was to make the best wine in the world and he did.

Dom Perignon's Tomb
Only sparkling wine made from the champagne area can be called champagne and all Dom Perignon champagne is vintage, it takes years to produce. All fermentation is done in the bottle and the bubbles are very small. It is wonderful! At first champagne was made pale and still and they were trying to stop the bubbles being created by a second fermentation that happened in the spring. When it became fashionable to drink wine with bubbles in England, the likes of Dom Perignon tried to control the bubble process so that the bottles didn’t explode. Dom’s innovation was in the development of blending the grapes before they went to the press. Whatever his contribution, I am sure that champagne is all the better for it.

The Abbey
After the tour of the Abbey, we went back to Epernay to have lunch at the Trianon Residence. Mozart used to play there! The inside decor of the house reminds me of Versailles on a smaller scale. Very ornate, gold everywhere, very French. The food and champagne was of course, wonderful. Many thanks to Ben and Julia for organising this for us.