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Early Artists

Claude Monet and his “Waterlilies,” Pierre-Auguste Renoir and his “Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette,” Paul Cezanne and his post impressionist work “The Bathers,” and Edgar Degas and his ballerinas are all giants of French art whose contributions to western culture have been felt for more than a hundred years. But not all great French artists are remembered by the world so well, in spite their major impact on western culture. The names of these ground-breaking masters are lost to time and their works don’t hang in a museum, but in the dark corners of our past in the caves of the France.

I can imagine how hard it must have been like for those early artists, stepping into the dark with only a flame to light the way, with only pigment rendered with their own hands creating great murals of the world around them.

I did a little research and was surprised at the difficulty of finding companies that specialize in these cave-hopping tours. I imagine, as with most tours, you get what you pay for.

The Archaeological Institute of America offers a 13-day Prehistoric Cave Art of Spain and France tour lead by Dr. Paul G. Bahn. He’s a Cambridge-educated historian and a published expert on the cave paintings and prehistory and as your the tour leader he’ll guide you from Bilbao, Spain to Toulouse, France while filling your mind with the educational experience of a lifetime.

The Smithsonian offers Smithsonian Journeys Traditions of Southwestern France: Sojourn in the Dordonge. While it doesn’t exclusively focus on the prehistory of man, it does touch on the topic as part of a larger look at the history of the Dordonge River Valley. The focus on the cave paintings at Lazcaux II and Rouffignac as well as the location of the discovery of fossils Cro-Magnon Man dating back 35,000 years are shared as part of the amazing history of a region dotted with medieval fortresses and small villages.

I’m sure you could find your way through the valleys of France, seeking out the caves and hotels on your own.  I do know it can be done. But I’ve found that when you’re dealing with such a niche as cave paintings, finding an expert helps even if you’re just looking for advice, not a complete tour. You can also use the more formal itineraries as inspiration to develop your own plan — with a more conservative budget in mind.

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A Flying First

I’ve been traveling around for more than 20 years, taking flights to exotic and not-so-exotic destinations. I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the last 10 years in the winter months, mainly February and March, due to the availability of time off from my day job that time of year and Amanda’s desperate need to escape winter.

I’ve also had my share of travel hiccups, such as planes delayed due to mechanical problems, late pilots and kittens.  But this February was the first time the weather had ever actually canceled a flight I was booked on and impacted the length of my trip.

A few weeks ago, old man winter was pounding the northeastern US like a red-headed step child, again. We didn’t have much snow in Pittsburgh, but that wasn’t the problem. The issue was our connection at New York’s JFK airport.

We breezed through check-in at PIT and were loaded onto the plane — and sat. The push-back from the gate was only a few minutes late and we began taxiing along the runway. The live seat belt demonstration was especially entertaining due to the flight attendant’s hand slipping, which brought the loose end of the belt extremely close to a passenger’s head. She didn’t even notice because she was too busy being obnoxious with the girl next to her (she was plucking the girl’s eyebrows and — according to the girl — missing the hair and pinching and pulling on her skin; this caused a great deal of squealing and whining from both parties). Neither of them were paying attention. Amanda and I shared amused looks with the flight attendant.

Our plane got all the way about to the runway, and we were next in line for takeoff when the captain got on the speaker and announced a ground stop at JFK — for at least the next four hours. We would be returning to the gate and getting off the plane. I was happy for that because back in the old days they would make you just sit on the plane and wait. The new laws penalize the airline if they do crap like that now.

Watching hockey at the airport

Watching hockey at the airport. #LetsGoCaps

So we got off the plane and decided to get a bite to eat. We also got the chance to sit at a bar and watch the hockey game. We tend to watch a lot of sports in airport bars; we watched football as we waited for our flight the day we left for our honeymoon.

We took our time at a sit-down restaurant and treated it like a mini-date (at the airport, but who cares?). We were also excited that due to the flight delay we’d been upgraded to business class for our transatlantic flight. A few hours later, we got in line to board the plane again. The cabin crew explained we had to board as quickly as possible because the window of opportunity to get off the ground and to JFK was limited. Everyone cooperated, strange for a group of passengers I know, but we loaded the plane in record time.

The doors were closed and cross-checked but as I was looking out the window, I saw the death knell of our flight. One of the baggage crew (who, for the second time had just finished loading our plane) shook his head and tossed his his gloves in the air with a sigh of defeat. It wasn’t long after that we heard the captain come on the speaker and apologize that the flight was now canceled and they would re-book us for the next earliest flights to get us to our destinations.

Crowded gate at PIAAmanda talked to the ticketing agent, because she’s good at that kind of thing, and selected a flight that connected in Atlanta rather than New York. There weren’t any options leaving for another 20 hours. I was annoyed that this meant our short trip to England was going to be made shorter, but we knew there was nothing we could do. The weather was the weather, and we’d heard of planes sliding off the runway in the northeast.

It helped that we were close to home, too. Pittsburgh International Airport is just 25 minutes from our apartment, so we were able to go home and sleep in our own bed.

We also got to spend that time together. I know for some of you that kind of sappy sweetness of a couple that loves to spend all their time together is a little much, but because of our work schedules the last year time together is something we’ve had very little of.

So there you have it: Our very first flight cancellation. Certainly not ideal, but we rolled with the punches and started our trip a day later than we originally planned.

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Lyme Regis: The Quintessential English Seaside Town

When you travel along the Dorset Coast in South West, England, you’ll come across many small towns dotting the coast, but none quite like the beach-side community of Lyme Regis. The town, with its mix of pastel and white-washed homes climbing up the hillside away from the beach, is reminiscent of much sunnier and tropical locales. I can only assume that the picturesque village becomes even more vibrant in the summer months since both times I’ve visited has been in late winter/early spring.

The village has connections to some great women in English history, too. Jane Austen uses the town as a backdrop in the her story Persuasion. The lesser-known (but no less important) Mary Anning was one of the greatest fossil hunters in the earliest days of paleontology (we’ll talk more about her when we tell you about our fossil walk).

The town is most of all a beach town and the center attraction is the sand and water. The town boasts of an “award-winning environmental protection scheme that ensures the waters around the town are safe and clean.” You can spend your summer days relaxing on the beach and soaking up the up the sun or going for a dip. The constant breeze makes the coast a great place for wind surfing, kite surfing and sailing. I have to say one of the most striking things along beach is a collection of small pastel sheds that seem to be used for everything from beach storage to shelter for residents spending the day at the beach.

A great sea wall that juts out into the water sheltering the harbor and calming the surf is simply known as The Cobb.  The sea wall is an impressive stone structure that dominates the seascape and is an attraction all its own. It’s popular for evening walks in the summer, watching the waves crash over it in the winter, or fishing no matter the season or weather. John Fowles used the dramatic setting of The Cobb in his book The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the film adaptation features Meryl Streep.

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The town is packed with cafés and art galleries and is a great place to spend a windy day sheltered from the weather.  A range of activities from a Jazz festival, Carnival, and regattas pack the yearly calendar ensuring visitors have more than enough to keep them busy.

I’ve been to this little village twice now, and would love to go again to see it in the warmth of summer.  I do recommend a trip if you’re ever in Dorset, regardless the weather.

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Stonehenge, Then and Now

Stonehenge has changed a lot over the years, but what’s important remains the same.

The first time I visited the most famous stacked stones in the world was almost 20 years ago. We just hopped in the car and drove toward Salisbury from London and followed a set of road signs. I remember rolling down the narrow road as the Stone Age site came into view and being amazed at how the structure just seemed to be sitting there in the middle of a field. We pulled into a small parking lot about 20 yards from the monument and walked in the grass around what felt like a lonely monolith. I can’t remember anyone else being there other than me and my group of friends. I was surprised again that the only barrier separating me from the stones was a low-hanging rope around the perimeter. I got some amazing photos that day due to the lack of modern intrusions. The site really felt like it hadn’t changed much from what it might have looked like centuries ago.

The world's most famous stacked stones.

The world’s most famous stacked stones.

“Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument begun as a simple earthwork enclosure, it was built in several stages, with the unique lintelled stone circle being erected in the late Neolithic period around 2500 BC. Stonehenge remained an important cultural and religious site into the early Bronze Age, when many burial mounds were built nearby.”

Well, my dear, times have changed. For one, you can’t drive up to the site; the road is closed and there’s a lot more security. You even have to buy tickets.

Let’s explore the more modern updates to the simplest of ancient structure. The site is now managed by English Heritage Trust and in the long run it will be better for preservation. But the management comes at a bit of a cost; it was so simple before, and now it’s not.

Now you have to book timed tickets in order to gain access to the site ($22); which you can buy online or at the swanky new visitor’s center a little more than a mile away from the site. You can choose some add-ons, too, like a guidebook or audio tour. The audio tour can be downloaded for free through iTunes. The English Heritage Foundation also offers memberships for $80 that will give you free access to Stonehenge and 400 other historic sites including castles and abbeys throughout England.

The visitor center houses a museum detailing the history of the site, with a permanent exhibition of bones, tools and pottery collected there. The center is also where you can either begin a 20-30 minute walk to the site along the now-closed road, or hop on one of the free shuttles. I would recommend the shuttle unless you’re really interested in stretching your legs; there isn’t much to look at as you walk. The visitor’s center also includes a large café and gift shop.

I will say, despite all the bells and whistles they’ve added, the monument to early man is still every bit as impressive. The new center and its massive parking lots are well hidden by the trees and rolling hills as to not intrude on the site. The only thing you really have to watch out for is the throngs of tourists and school groups. I haven’t figured out the best time to go to avoid the crowds, but when I do you can be sure I’ll pass it along.

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England Bound: The Visit

I mentioned back in January we were getting ready to run off to warmer weather near the end of February, and we did find warmer weather.  The post just before we left was all about the arctic temperatures gripping western Pennsylvania, so, finding weather in the 40s was a major improvement.  We hoped for a little sunshine, but that might have been a tall order for Dorset on southwest coast of England. The warm welcome we received was more than enough to thaw our bones and shake off the drizzle.

Paul and Kate Wiscombe are proprietors of the Anchor Inn in Seatown, a tiny village at end of a long one-lane road flanked by hedgerows along the Dorset coast. (They’re also our friends; Zeke met Kate and her sister, Anna, on his first trip to Greece many moons ago.) The inn and its associated pub – founded in 1790 — lay right along the water in a small valley created by two of the large, craggy cliffs that dominate the shoreline.

I have known Kate for almost 20 years now. We’ve managed to stay in touch, first by writing letters and then by email, but only managed to meet in person twice in those intervening years. That’s why this trip was so important; we both realized it had been way too long since we sat down across a table and shared stories about our lives. I doubt you’re too interested at hearing stories about children and families you don’t know, so we’ll focus on the best Inn we’ve ever encountered.

The Anchor Inn Seatown is a bed and breakfast and pub with classic whitewashed walls and a thatched roof, sitting right on the beach with the waves of the Atlantic crashing to shore a stone’s throw away. From the outside it’s everything you’d expect of a quintessential English, seaside structure.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

You enter the pub/check-in desk off the large stone patio. The bartender was expecting us and showed us up to our room. I had seen pictures of the rooms, and don’t know what I was expecting, but was absolutely blown away by what we saw.

The spacious room (called Thorncombe) was filled with light and looks as though it popped right out of a designer’s catalogue.  A leather love seat, a table made from a rusted trunk, a very large bed and the repurposed wooden end tables all added to the effect of being someplace special.

And then there was the bathroom. When I think of bathrooms in England, I think tiny, cold and dark (this impression is based off my first experiences in the country). But this time I found what may be my dream bathroom. The large room included twin sinks, mirrors that looked like repurposed portholes, a huge shower, and — in a separate section — a large claw-footed soaker tub. I want this bathroom when I grow up.

The other rooms in the inn were decorated with equal elegance, to add to its romantic atmosphere. Our breakfast was served in a small room of the pub, decorated with photos and knickknacks sharing the history of the community. You could order a full English breakfast (if you felt up to the delicious challenge!), or stick with simpler fare, like cereal or toast. We never felt hurried to get in and out, and used that time to plan our day and figure out which way to go exploring.

I’m sure I will say this several times in the next few posts, but the inn, regardless of the fact that we’re friends with the owners, was one of the most romantic places we’ve ever been.

I look forward to telling you more about the pub, the food, the things that went right and the things that went wrong — and how we rolled with all of it to make our trip a wonderful little escape.

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Its so cold…

We’ve all heard the set up and the different punch lines, “It’s so cold…” but the last couple of weeks here in Western Pennsylvania have been cold with a capital “C”.

It’s so cold the Allegheny River froze…photo (62)

It’s so cold we went to a hockey game to warm up.

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It’s so cold we wear thermal underwear just to take the trash out.photo (64)

It’s so cold we thought this was balmy.

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But it’s not cold enough to keep a man from his grill.

photo (63)We have a trip coming up so you’ll be getting some great narratives and tips in our upcoming posts. Until then, safe travels!

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Four Great Travel Apps

Ain’t technology grand? Let these four travel apps help you enjoy your next trip a little more fully.

Flight AwareFlight Aware – The folks at flight aware have done a great job at making it easy to stalk a loved one as they fly through the skies. You simply need to go the website and put in the airline and flight number to get a peek at where they are in their travels. I find this is especially handy for figuring out when to leave for the airport for pickup duties. I also know we use it a lot in the news business to get a handle on how many flights are delayed and canceled (yeah, I’m looking at you, Boston Logan). You can download the app on your smart device or go to the Flight Aware website.

JetLag Genie- I think this app could only have been invented by a business traveler. The app lets you program your destination and then your normal sleeping habits, and it comes up with a series of alarms to change your routine to make it a little easier to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when you get to your destination. The app is available in the iTunes store for $2.99.

FourSquare- I know this one has been around a long time but Amanda still uses it when she’s somewhere new.  She finds it the easiest way to find a place to eat, get coffee, or shop. I think one of the best features of this app is being able to look at the comments about the places you’re about to visit. The ratings are helpful, but the tips are the best, like try the café mocha, it tastes like real coffee and not hot chocolate.

Wifi Finder- I think this app is genius, especially for those of us who need our smart phones when we travel internationally, but who don’t travel abroad often enough to warrant an international plan. I think this is the best way to help feed your addiction to Instagram posting, or just telling your folks that you’re okay. The app will lead you to paid or free wifi like a divining rod to water. The best thing is you can download the maps before you leave so you have access to them offline (’cause if you had to go online to get them it’d kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?).

I hope this quick list helps make your travels a little bit easier.

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