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Adventures in Prague and Paris

I’ve been staying in Prague in the Czech Republic since late January… sort of. Two weeks ago we traveled to France to spend 10 days in Paris during the kids’ spring break. So in a way, I’ve had a trip within a trip, which is kind of neat.

This is the first time I’ve been to Prague since I was kicked out of the Czech Republic a couple of decades ago with Yvonne before we were married. I’d recount the story here, but it’s one of my best stories, so if you see me in person be sure to make a point to ask me about it and I’d be glad to tell you. It was snowing in Prague when I got there, which was a nice change after having spent the winter in snow-free Florida.

Snow in Prague

Snow in Prague.

The city of Prague has impressed me more than I thought it would. I’ve heard that it’s a fascinating and vibrant city, but so far it’s exceeded my expectations. I find the tram system (being from Toronto I keep wanting to say streetcar system) is efficient and well-run, and having a monthly public transportation pass makes getting around the city easy and low-stress.

Tram in Prague

A modern tram in Prague, near Lazarská.

One interesting site we visited in Prague was the Colloredo-Mansfeldský Palace near the Charles Bridge. It’s an old, run-down palace built in the early 1700s that has (sort of) been converted into a modern art museum. It’s safe to say that it’s one of the creepiest places I’ve ever visited. There was one particularly memorable room with interesting ornate walls and a painted ceiling that had a bunch of huge empty picture frames and a speaker on a stand set up in the middle. The speaker was playing a recording of a man moaning and making unnerving guttural breathing noises. I’m generally a fan of art, even so-called modern art, but what the heck? So bizarre.

I also visited the Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, dating back to 1410, one of the must-see sites in Prague. When I was a kid I was a big fan of clocks and watches, even taking some apart to see how they worked (though I can’t say I was as successful at putting them back together), so it was really fun to visit this famous clock.

Prague Astronomical Clock

The astronomical clock in Prague. On the hour the little skeleton to the right of the main clock rings the bell, and the other figures shake their heads no to indicate it’s not their time to go yet.

After spending some time in Prague, we traveled to Paris. It was nice to be back in France after a few years away. It was a short flight from Prague to the Charles de Gaulle airport, and then an Uber ride (which turned out to be cheaper than taking public transportation) to the Santa Fe Hotel at Disneyland Paris in Marne-la-Vallée. Yvonne booked the hotel back in September for a very low rate (50 euros a night!) and since it was located close to both the Disneyland parks and the Marne-la-Vallée train station, it turned out to be a good base of operations for our stay.

Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant

Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (Le Chateau de la Belle au Bois Dormant) at Disneyland Paris. There’s a nifty animatronic dragon that lurks beneath the castle.

Disneyland Paris was fun – having lived in Orlando for the past five years, we’ve become accustomed to the Central Florida Disney lifestyle, so experiencing Paris’s take on Disney was interesting. For example, the Disneyland Paris version of Space Mountain has been rebranded to Hyperspace Mountain, featuring a Star Wars theme. In my opinion, it’s superior to the Space Mountain at Disney World in Orlando, and is probably my favorite of all the Disney roller coasters (that I’ve tried so far at least).

Disneyland Paris Fastpasses

Disneyland Paris still uses the old school version of the FastPass.

Speaking of rides that are better at Disneyland Paris, the Disneyland Paris version of the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith is also, in my opinion, better than the one at Hollywood Studios at Disney World in Orlando. While the Orlando version has a stretched limo theme, with riders taking a trip to an Aerosmith concert, the Paris version continues the story as the riders arrive at the concert and go backstage to see Aerosmith. It’s not really the theme that makes the ride better – I just like the ride better. Though that could also be because I haven’t ridden the Paris version as many times as I have the Orlando version. I also prefer the Disneyland Paris version of the Pirates of the Carribean ride, but only because they haven’t overdone the Captain Jack Sparrow aspect like they did in Orlando. Meanwhile, we rode the Disneyland Paris version of the Haunted Mansion (which is called Phantom Manor) several years ago, but this year it is closed until April – too bad! That said, I still managed to get a picture with Phantom Manor Mickey outside the attraction.

Phantom Manor Mickey

Me and Mickey outside the Phantom Manor at Disneyland Paris. It still feels kinda weird to be all bundled up in a winter coat and scarf while taking pictures with Disney characters after all the pictures taken in shorts and T-shirts in Orlando.

The Ratatouille ride is also fun, and new since we were last at Disneyland Paris. It reminded me a little bit of the original Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios Florida. The pathing of the is interesting – the different cars do not follow the same path, so it gives the effect of a bunch of rats scurrying across a restaurant floor. Pretty neat.

Amelia on the Disneyland Paris Carousel

Amelia on the Disneyland Paris Carousel.

Disneyland Paris Carousel

Aaaaand me on the Disneyland Paris Carousel. Never too old I guess? This isn’t a bad selfie!

We traveled by train from the train station near our hotel to Paris a few times during our stay. Callum and I went to the Paris Manga and Sci-Fi Show at Porte de Versailles this past Saturday, which was really fun. I still want to find myself a really neat and obscure cosplay costume that I can somehow create… it would be even better if I could find some themed costumes so that Callum and Amelia could join in. For the longest time I’ve wanted to dress as Yoshimitsu from the original Soul Calibur game (for Sega Dreamcast), which would be amazing, but extremely difficult to pull off.

We also visited the Eiffel Tower as a family, climbing the stairs to the second floor before taking the elevator to the top level. Apparently, there are 674 steps leading to the second floor of the Eiffel Tower (there are 1665 steps in all, but the steps leading to the very top of the tower are closed to the public). Climbing up and down all those steps made for some darned good exercise!

The Eiffel Tower from below

The Eiffel Tower, taken from below. Yvonne took a picture like this a few years ago. It still looks pretty much the same?

Eiffel Tower shadow

The Eiffel Tower’s shadow, taken from the top floor.

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower, hiding with minimal success behind a tree. I took this photo on our way to the exit.

After visiting the Eiffel Tower we took the Métro to Montmartre, which is one of my favorite sites in Paris. There are over 300 stairs leading to Montmartre, which means that after our Eiffel Tower stair-climbing adventure we got even more steps in!

Montmartre

The view from Montmartre, taken in “Amelia style” (re: on the diagonal”). It’s a lot easier to take pictures when you don’t have to worry about holding the camera straight!

We also did a bit of shopping while staying in Paris. The Val d’Europe shopping center is located relatively close to Disneyland Paris, so we went there to get some clothes and other items we might not find in Prague. I found the most European of jeans at Bonobo, a French jeans company, so that was pretty cool. Callum and Amelia found new jackets. And we spent some time at Auchan and bought a collection of really good French treats! If I’d had a cooler I would have filled it to the brim with French cheese, but alas, it was not meant to be.

Callum and I at Fnac

Callum and I at the Fnac in Val d’Europe. It’s a combination high tech gadgets shop and bookstore – what could be better than that? Callum is smiling on the inside.

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Walking in Auvergne

Back in 2005 and 2006 I completed a Masters program at ESC Clermont in Auvergne, France. This week, I’m back in town. It’s quite something to be back here after almost eight years.

While I’ve been in the region, I’ve been doing a lot of walking around and exploring, both in Clermont-Ferrand and its neighboring towns, and in the surrounding countryside. On Sunday I went on a hike with my friends Anthony, Maya, and their three year-old daughter. We started at the Clermont-Ferrand Golf Club and hiked up Le Pariou. Le Pariou is a “puy”, which is a term used in the region of Auvergne to describe a volcanic hill (an inactive volcano). Le Pariou sits next to the Puy de Dôme, the largest of the inactive volcanoes in the region. As I climbed the Puy de Dôme back in 2005, it made me feel somewhat accomplished to hike up yet another one. Le Pariou is also less toured than the Puy de Dôme, so it had more of a natural feel to it than its bigger brother.

It was rather cold and somewhat windy on Sunday, so we were relatively bundled up for the hike. Anthony carried his daughter on his back in one of those child carrier backpacks almost the whole way – he’s a pretty fit guy. Once we reached the top of Le Pariou, we were able to look down into the crater and see some of the volcanic rocks which people often use to write names or messages that can be seen from the lip of the volcano above. It was extremely windy at the top, but it afforded some great views of Clermont-Ferrand and the surrounding area.

Here are a few pictures from our hike.

Climbing Le Pariou

Looking back while walking up Le Pariou, near the base of the volcano.

Overlook from Le Pariou

Looking out from the rim of the crater at Le Pariou.

The Puys of Auvergne

Overlooking the range of volcanic hills. If you click to zoom in, you can see the crater atop the hill on the right.

Overlooking Clermont-Ferrand from Le Pariou

From here, you can see Clermont-Ferrand in the distance.

The crater of Le Pariou

The crater of Le Pariou, where you can write words using volcanic rocks.

Clermont-Ferrand from above

Viewing Clermont-Ferrand from a stop along the road that leads to the Puy de Dôme. You can see the cathedral in the center.

And here are a few pictures from a walk I took last night in Clermont-Ferrand with a couple of friends. We started at Place de la Victoire, where the cathedral sits, and walked around the old town for a bit. We also visited Place Jaude. It was somewhat rainy and cold, but the rain seemed to make for some cool, moody pictures.

Place du Terrail in Clermont-Ferrand

At Place du Terrail. I didn’t apply a filter to this picture; with the wet ground from the rain and the ambient lighting, it looked just like this.

The Cathedral in Clermont-Ferrand

The cathedral at Place de la Victoire.

Avenue Marx-Dormoy

Here’s where we lived in Clermont-Ferrand back in 2005 and 2006.

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05. Nov, 2013
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from France to Spain

It has been a busy couple of months!

During May, June, and July I managed a six-week project in Paris. The project itself took place in Nanterre, to the northwest of central Paris, but while in Paris I stayed in a hotel at La Défense. It was a challenging project, but both our internal team and the client team worked very hard, and in the end the project was a success. I was very happy to meet and work with many new and interesting people, and I had a lot of fun in the process.

As I was in Paris for six weeks I managed to tour around quite a bit, for the most part with a friend and co-worker who was working on the project with me. I had a Navigo pass – a no-holds-barred Métro pass that certainly came in handy. During the evenings I, or I and my friend, would explore a different quarter in Paris – Montmartre, Saint-Paul, le Madeleine, la Place de la Concorde – and perhaps find a restaurant to eat at while we were there. What I really like about Paris is all of the interesting spots that you can discover… Paris is rich with culture and history, and it is always a joy to stumble upon someplace new and interesting.

Grande Arche de La Défense

The Grande Arche de La Défense. During the day, people often come to sit on the steps and have a snack

Montmartre

Sitting on the steps at Montmartre

Frogburger

My friend and I found a restaurant called Frogburger near Place de la Bastille. What the heck? Don’t worry, we didn’t end up eating there!

Jazz festival electro set

An electro music set at the Paris Jazz Festival, that took place at La Défense

Where is Brian?

Every French person who has ever learned English knows the phrase “Where is Brian? Brian is in the kitchen!” – trust me, I heard this phrase nearly every time someone learned my name…

After my stay in Paris, I stayed for a couple of days in Reading, England, with time spent working in Basingstoke to wrap up the project and come up with time and cost estimates for future phases. While I was there I stayed with a friend (rather than in a hotel), so I got to tour around a little bit. It was a short stay, but it was nice to see a bit of England again.

Reading, England

On a walk in Reading

In the meantime, my family picked up and headed to the south coast of Spain, where we’ll be staying until November or so. I am currently sitting in a shady spot overlooking the small town of Isla Plana, near Puerto de Mazarrón, and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. It was definitely a huge switch to move from Normandy in northwestern France – a beautiful spot, but rather chilly and rainy – to southern Spain, where it hasn’t rained since I got here, and most of the terrain is rocky and very dry. We’re a short walk from the Isla Plana beach, so we’ve spent quite a bit of time on the beach, and have visited the pool at our complex at Isla Plana every day – sometimes more than once! But don’t worry – we’re slathering ourselves with sunscreen, and have for the most part been sticking to hanging around outside in the mornings or evenings; the mid-afternoon is siesta time!

A beach cove in Bolnuevo

A beach cove in Bolnuevo in southern Spain

Rocky coast of Spain

The rocky coast of southern Spain, near Bolnuevo

Along the coast of Bolnuevo

Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea near Bolnuevo

On the rocks at Bolnuevo

On the rocks at Bolnuevo

Spanish ham

In France, I marveled at the huge cheese selection they had in the grocery stores… in Spain, they have huge selections of Spanish ham, or “jamón”

Amelia being fabulous

Amelia being fabulous in her sunglasses

Kids and cacti

The kids and some cacti – of course we had to check out what they had at the local garden store in Puerto de Mazarrón

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out and about in the springtime

I’ve been sharing plenty of nature photos lately… pictures from leisurely walks in the woods, from lazy afternoons spent wandering the gardens of Normandy or Brittany, or even those taken from the side of the road whenever I stumble upon something noteworthy traveling from point A to point B. It seems that I’ve grown much more in tune with the earth over the past several years; I’m always happy to be outside on a beautiful day learning about nature and the plants and creatures that share our planet.

One of the best purchases we’ve made over the past couple of years has been annual passes to the Parc Botanique de Haut Bretagne (Botanical Garden of Upper Brittany)… it’s quite close to our house (near the town of Fougères in Brittany), so we frequently go there to wander around for a few miles. There are some nice areas of the park to explore, and every time we go something has changed… something has grown, or matured, or been replaced. It’s peaceful, and the kids really like it. Callum especially is into plants and gardening, and can spend hours checking out the various specimins in the carnivorous plants section of the park.

We took an afternoon trip to the park yesterday, and of course I took a few pictures… and of course I’m going to share them here.

Along the garden path

Along the garden path

The river

The river, with flowering bushes along its banks

Gardens and fields

The gardens and green fields of Brittany

The Garden of the Rising Sun

An Asian-themed garden within the Parc Florale

Bamboo grove

The bamboo grove, and the fields beyond

Flowering sarracenia

The sarracenia (a type of carnivorous pitcher plant) were blooming in the carnivorous plants garden

A strange plant at the Parc Botanique

This is a strange plant that I don’t even know what it is

Tadpole

A new friend I found swimming in the pond… don’t worry, I put him back!

Some kids and a statue

A couple of random kids and a statue by the garden trail

And, in the spirit of sharing photos, here are a couple of yours truly in action…

On the mic

While I’m not usually much of an entertainer, I have occasionally been known to house the crowd

Out and about

Out and about with some friends in Avranches

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Memorial Day in Normandy

Today is Memorial Day, a day to remember those men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. While it is of course most commonly recognized in the United States, what many people may not realize is that there are also Memorial Day celebrations to remember the courage and sacrifice of American soldiers here in France.

Yesterday there was a huge ceremony at the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-James, Lower Normandy. I only heard about it while driving through Saint-James on our way home from Rennes late last week; while driving through town I was surprised to see a collection of American jeeps and troop transports from the 1940s, surrounded by groups of people dressed in 1940s civilian and military garb. I stopped to ask them about what was going on, and they mentioned the ceremony to take place on Sunday the 26th.

On Sunday we drove to the cemetery and discovered huge numbers of cars parked along the sides of the roads leading to and from the site. I ended up parking at the farm of someone who was letting people park their cars there for the occasion. As we walked up to the site, an American twin-engine light bomber was soaring overhead. Inside were throngs of people, mostly French, with some British and a few Americans thrown in.

The ceremony was nicely done – the Consul of the United States for Western France was there, as was Brigadier General Kevin McNeely and a few other American military officers. After the French and American national anthems were played, speeches were made in both French and English, and there were prayers given by both a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. Afterward they played taps and a variety of different people laid wreaths at the cemetery, including a variety of French VIPs, some American representatives, and mayors from both a British town and a German town.

I’m not American myself, of course, but my wife is, and my children are half American, so I was very happy that they were there to experience the ceremony. I feel it is important for the kids to understand what happened during World War II and the role that the United States Armed Forces (as well as the Canadian Armed Forces) played during that era. The courage of those young men and women who, in many cases, sacrificed all they had to win freedom for their allies should be remembered and celebrated. And here in France, as you can see, they have not forgotten.

Memorial Day at the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial

Speeches being given during the ceremony, with the cemetery in the background

Flags at the Brittany American Cemetery and Memorial

Flags being held during the ceremony

Amelia with the Texas flag

Amelia wanted a picture of herself beside the flag of the state where she was born

The Florida flag

The Florida flag, for grandma and grandpa

An American jeep from the 1940s

There were a number of different American vehicles from the 1940s at the site; I wish I had taken pictures of more of them!

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Saint Hilaire du Harcouët

Amelia and I took a walk around our local town of Saint Hilaire du Harcouët, in Basse-Normandie, France. We shot a quick video of our tour. In this video, Amelia points out some of the landmarks in Saint Hilaire, and we walk through the Wednesday morning market. It was a nice day for it!

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the hiking trails of Monthault

Ruins near Monthault in BrittanyThis past Saturday was one of the nicest days we’ve seen here in northwestern France in 2013. Today is certainly not one of those days… I went for a jog this morning after dropping the kids off at school, and it was only half a degree from freezing. Brr! Though I guess I shouldn’t complain… I hear my friends and family back in Ontario have been seeing snow.

Considering how nice a day it was outside on Saturday, we as a family decided to take a trip to the hills of Monthault in Brittany, quite near where we live. There are some really nice hiking trails near the town, including one that leads to an amazing megalithic site. A friend has hiked there, and she told me that to her, it felt like a place of great power. I definitely wanted to see that.

The hiking trail we took was called “Les Buttes de Monthault” – The Mounds of Monthault. We parked our car near the trails and headed up the hill. We had a great family walk, but I’m sorry to say that I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, because after a nice long trek we ended up arriving back at the village of Monthault having wound up on a completely different trail… something about the colors of Monthault? I have no idea how that happened, but I certainly didn’t see any interesting mounds out there! On the plus side, we had a great time hiking up and down the hilly trails. The countryside in this region is quite beautiful.

Amelia was my stalwart hiking partner for the entire walk. She talked my ear off the entire time! She has become quite a creative young lady with the stories that she can spin, one after the other.

At any rate, it was a lovely day, and I’m looking forward to the return of the springtime weather we had over the weekend! Maybe when the sun comes back out I’ll try once more to find those ancient rocks…

Amelia on the trail

Amelia, my hiking partner, strikes a pose

The countryside near Monthault

the countryside surrounding the village of Monthault

The church in Monthault

The church in Monthault – I love the steeple!

A strange insect on my leg

This strange bee-fly hybrid insect that I don’t even know what it is landed on my leg; I should probably look it up and try to figure out what it was and if it was out to get me

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trees in Fougères

today was a pretty nice (albeit somewhat chilly) day, so we spent the afternoon at the forest of Fougères in the eastern part of Brittany. The forest is quite large, and within it there is a good-sized lake with a beach for the kids to play at and a short pier where people gather to fish. Around the lake is a hiking trail with exercise posts set up at intervals beside the path (as I mentioned in a previous post, this is quite common in France).

Trees in Fougères

Trees in the forest of Fougères

Moss on the trees

Moss on the trees

Shetland pony meets Shetland sheepdog

Shetland pony meets Shetland sheepdog

now we’re at home; it’s evening, and the kids are working on their crafts. Meanwhile, we’ve got the wood stove going to keep the place warm. And that’s the news for today.

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a walk through the woods

It’s the middle of February, and the rainy, gloomy days typical of winter here in northwest France are winding down. Yesterday was a beautiful day – clear skies, not too cold, and not raining – so we went for a walk in the woods in a park called the Vallée Humide de Bois-Ainaux. It is a forested wetland in the northeast of Brittany (Ille-et-Vilaine) with a variety of different natural sites to see and educational areas for the children to play with and explore. It’s a great place to visit on a clear, cool day, and we were the only people in the park throughout the entire afternoon. Of course I had my iPhone with me, so naturally I took a bunch of pictures.

I’m going to start with a picture of me, as I notice I don’t post many pictures of myself on my own blog!

Brian Crawford

Me walking through the woods in Brittany on a not-quite-spring day

And here is a picture of Amelia and me… after I got Yvonne to take a picture of me, Amelia wanted one of the two of us in the same place.

Amelia and Brian

Amelia and I hanging out in the woods

Here is Callum by a pond in the middle of the forest. Inside the pond were thousands of frog eggs (frogspawn), ready to turn into tadpoles.

A pond full of frog eggs

A pond full of frog eggs in the middle of the forest

The kids found some big boulders in one part of the woods, so they did a little climbing.

Climbing boulders

Climbing some boulders in the woods

And finally, here is a picture of our Shetland Sheepdog, Lilou. We kept her off her leash for most of the walk, and she was very well-behaved… at one point we thought she was going to jump into the frog pond, but fortunately she came to her senses and decided against it. Nice work! Otherwise she ran around, sniffed stuff, and let out a lot of energy.

Lilou the Shetland Sheepdog

Lilou, our tri-color Shetland Sheepdog

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almost winter in Normandy

the reason I say almost winter in Normandy is because technically winter doesn’t start until December 21st. I always get zinged by this, because it gets so wintry here in France much earlier than December 21st, and even more so where I’m from in Canada.

today is definitely one of those pretty-much-wintry days… there’s a light frost on the ground, which is beautiful to look at, and the pastures near where we live are glistening and white. If you dress warmly it’s a great day to take a walk in the sunshine, which makes the grounds sparkle, but isn’t quite strong enough to melt the frost covering the ground.

here are a few pictures that I took of frosty mornings in France (with my iPhone, so the quality might not be all there).

A river through the farmland

A tiny river through the farmland beside our house

Fencepost and frosted fields

A fencepost beside our driveway

Frost-covered fields in the morning

Frost-covered fields in the morning

A statue in Saint-James

A statue in the town of Saint-James, overlooking the countryside

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