Abbaye de Vaucelles, 12th century

May 7, 2022

The Abbaye de Vaucelles gives you the feeling of being a monk in medieval times, with its stone structures, vaulted ceilings and chilly cellars, the peaceful gardens (forget the work involved), which specifically includes herbs mentioned in the Bible. Perhaps it was those Biblical herbs that had me sneezing as soon as we came near the garden just past the statue of the monk.

paper sculpture
Statue of monk

The site sits deep in the countryside. It was dark that night at our mooring except for the safety light at the lock just ahead. There are cultivated fields all around, just a few houses in the village, whose bridge was built in the 12th century. Under that bridge flows the Escaut River, called the Schelde once you cross into Belgium. It flows all the way into the North Sea at Antwerp, where it is a wide river with a raging tide. Here the source is not far away from its origin in the hills, where in a few days we will take our boat through a tunnel that is five kilometers long.

Bishop’s residence

The complex was founded in 1131 by Saint Bernard near Cambrai, in northern France. It was Bernard’s 13th monastery, and was to become the largest Cistern monastery. It retains some of its structures. Others were destroyed by the German Army in WWI to keep its food stores from the Allies. The Abbaye, then privately owned, sat on the Hindenburg Line. There was additional destruction during the French revolution, as a result of the Church’s support of the monarchy. It was used by local peasants after the French revolution. The Bishop’s palace was purchased by a woman who lived there with her daughter.

The Gothic church it once supported measured 137 meters in length x 64 meters at its widest. You can see its dimensions outlined where it stood.  Some books from the library, which had 20,000 to 40,000 volumes in 1257, are kept in Cambrai. The Lagoutte family bought it in 1971. They restored what they could and opened it for visitors. It was bought in 2017 by the regional government in 2017.


When Bernard died in 1153, there were 103 monks and about 300 lay brothers who performed the tasks necessary for the running of the monastery and its substantial production. In the 13th century they built the large church, two cloisters and other buildings.

In 1254 King Louis donated a thorn from the Crown of Thorns. At the end of the 13th century , the abbey, placed under the protection of the popes and kings of France, built the aforementioned monumental church, two cloisters and numerous buildings. In the next century the monastery suffered during the Hundred Years War, a war of religion. It was attacked on several occasions, looted, sacked and rebuilt. It was plundered in 1482 and 1543. In 1555 the Truce of Vaucelles was signed here, leading to the end of war between France and Spain. For more information see their website

abbey steel tanks
The brewery at the Abbye. They have 4 or 5 beers on tap, jars of pate, as well as smoked sausage for sale
gary at abbey with beer
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We sampled beers made at the Abbaye. There were 4 on tap.

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Sculpture made with shredded paper.

Arras, site of major WWI battle

The Battle of Arras was a major WWI battle. We toured the extensive caves created for the efforts of the British to surprise the Germans dug in the trenches.   It’s a guided tour, of course. You could easily get lost even with the wall markings still largely in place.   The English/French guide was very good, and there is an audio guide that kicks in with additional information while you walk to the next section.  

Before 1916 the French manned the Arras line, then the British moved in. They brought in coal miner volunteers from New Zealand, called sappers, to dig towards the German lines. Their efforts produces extensive tunnels, . The idea was to allow some 24,000 troops to exit the tunnels close to the German trenches, to gain the upper hand by surprise, in coordination with a French attack. Tunnel tactics date well back in time, to thousands of years before the common era.

The battle took place 9 April to 16 May 1917. It was part of the Nieville Offensive, conceived by the French general of that name. The British assaulted from Vimy to the north-west to Bullecourt to the south-east. The Canadians captured Vimy Ridge. The Third Army advanced along the Scarpe River, which we took to get here. Per the guide the French did not move for several days, contrary to plans, and the British troops paused the attack after its initial success, allowing the Germans to recover. Nonetheless the British advanced further than any previous effort in the trench warfare phase of the War. The blood bath continued until late in 1918 when the US entry in the war helped turn the tide. We visited one of the cemeteries on the edge of town, meticulously maintained to this day.

Arras was nearly flattened by German bombing. Most of the populace fled, leaving just 1200 behind when the battle began.

place herod
Place des Heros, Arras
place des heros
Place des Heros today

place herod
Hotel de Ville (City Hall)
Hotel de ville arras
Hotel de Ville now- beneath are caves also used during WWI.
chalk caves under htel ville
In the chalk caves beneath the Hotel de Ville, Arras
solderi on wall
Photo of soldier projected onto the cave walls

On the Road Again

We departed our winter mooring of Valenciennes, near the Belgium border, heading south on the Schelde River, known as the Escarpe in France, then to the Canal du Nord. We are now on the seldom traveled Scarpe River, whose ancient locks are too small for modern barges and thus the lack of that sort of traffic. Even few pleasure boaters seek its pleasures, for in France canal boating is not terriblly popular among the French. It’s mostly us foreigners.

We spent the first night in Bassin Rond, near the town of Paillencourt. There’s room for three boats our size on a well maintained pontoon. We were welcomed by our winter neighbors, whom we’d just met in Valenciennes as they were readying their 15 meter barge for summer’s outing. They told us how pleasant a mooring this is so we followed them a day later.

We walked to town of Paillencourt the next morning, a Sunday. The bakery was open, with fresh bread, pain au chocolate, tartalettes and more wonderful treats awaiting. They even had a corn flour baguette-shaped bread. It’s just past the town’s WWI-WWII memorial. There the deaths were numerous during WWI. Several civilians murdered by the Nazis are listed. Down the road there is a plaque to a pilot who died when his plane crashed in May, 1944.

The locals, or at least some of them, were happy to say hello. One in particular wanted to try out his very limited English and even offered to buy us another coffee as we sat outside in the sun. He’s the one who told us about the plaque down the street. His wife joked with us about her husband’s gift of the gab and that he appeared to know everyone. This is not a surprise, I suppose, given that we are in a small pond after all. There are just some 1000 residents.

He tried to remember our names. Mine was the most difficult for some reason. After three efforts I gave him a hint. That did not work. Then I said, “Macron.” “Nooooo” he said. This is the second time I’ve had this reaction, the first in Valenciennes when I joked with the cashier, saying “Macron” as I signed the credit card receipt. I have read that there is a lot of support in northern France for Le Nazi. My take is that people in some areas are more worried about economic issues than being associated with a person with a racist past. They do not want to support any more immigrants- they have many indeed.

After two nights in the Bassin we continued on the Canal de la Sensee, passing large barges being loaded with grain. After a bit we radioed the next lock. He had told us to enter. He returned a bit later to explain that two barges were coming in behind us. Normally the large craft enter first while the smaller ones wait for the barges to completely stop. The two came in behind us very slowly, and given the size of the lock, there was no problem, even given that the one to our side just had the captain aboard. Behind us a woman with purple hair handled the huge lines, gave a big smile and waved hello. That made me feel warmed all over.

Lock on the Canal de la Sansee, northern France
Lock on the Canal du Nord, northern France
In the lock on the Canal de la Sansee

The friendly lock keeper gave us the remote control for the locks on the Scarpe River. He said there were additional instructions at the first lock. After we entered the Scarpe River, we came upon the lock and no instructions in sight, or we missed them. The lock did not operate. The phone number he gave us led only to a recording. After 30 minutes we were still waiting for a reply so I wrote to our winter neighbor. He gave us a number that worked. Soon we had a proper explanation. We thought we were supposed to touch “Avalant” not “Montant.” Montant means going upstream, that is going towards the source of the river, and that is what we are in fact doing. Our error. After it would not open I did try Montant but apparently once you make this mistake they have toreset the system. Finally we entered the lock to find the two rods that fill the lock and open the gates. I pulled down. Nothing. Another VNF truck had come by so I looked at the driver. He said you push up. We had not been told that. I supposed I would have tried that eventually.

We went through another lock without incident, but the third would not open at first. After about 30 minutes I tried again. The gates opened, it filled slowly and gently. We stopped for the night in Blache-Saint-Vaast.

Lock on the Scarpe River, northern France
Lock on the Scarpe River. It looks fierce but was quite gentle.

Cappadocia, Turkey, rich in history and geological formations

Cappadoccia, known as Hitti in the late Bronze age (circa 1500 BCE), is in the Anatolia region of present day Turkey. Once ruled by Alexander the Great, it later came under the influence of the Persians.  Pompey, Caeser, Antony, and finally, Octavia fought for its control. By the time of the death of Jesus it was a Roman province, and became an area where early Christians lived. Tourists today flock to see the cave dwellings and underground cities that housed up to 20,000.

cave dwellings at night
Cave dwellings at night

They used these underground dwellings primarily in times of danger. Some of these descended six stories into the soft tufa rock. The Christians were not the first to dig into the tufa. The Phrygians, an Indo-European people, may have done so in the 8th–7th centuries B.C .E. Early Christians expanded the dwellings. Many of these Christians were Greek speaking, in fact the Gospels were written in Greek, as the earliest fragments (150 CE), manuscripts and linguistic analysis show.

There was significant expansion in the Byzantine (what we also call the Eastern Roman Empire) era, when Muslim raids became a danger to the population, 780-1180 CE. They constructed underground traps in the case of intrusion, for example using boulders to cut off passages. After the Seljuk Turks of Persia conquered the Byzantine Empire, inhabitants still used the dwellings to avoid the Turks into the 20th century. Kaymakli is the most visited of the underground cities.

The Christians in the area were expelled in 1923 in a population exchange with Greece.

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Once inhabited by monks, starting in the 1100’s

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WhatsApp Image 2022-04-08 at 5.35.18 PM
Cave dwellings
cave dwellings massive numbers
cave dwellings baloons

The dark tops of the pillars are giant stones thrown out of volcanoes 2 million years ago that fell on tufa plateaus that developed from volcanic ash spewed out of the same volcanoes 15 million years ago. The stones compressed the tufa when they landed and now protect the soft tufa directly under them as the wind erodes the plateau creating the pillars. Eventually the pillars become so thin that the stones fall. 

Adventures in Covid Travel

April 4, 2022

I was in Madrid on my way to Montreal via Heathrow. Just after passengers boarded the airplane in Madrid to go to Heathrow we had to disembark.  There was something wrong with the plane. We got out an hour late.  I had 2.5 hr layover at Heathrow so I figured I’d make my connection to Montreal. 

No.  Once landed, we waited 45 min for a gate.  By the time I got off the plane they had closed boarding so I missed the flight to Montreal.  American Airlines was great-  got me another flight the next day, a hotel, transport, meals.  However, the flight went through Philadelphia so I had to get a covid test per US requirements.  Canada stopped requiring tests as of April 1, and this was April 4, so I had not tested. I found my way to the testing center in the Airport, filled out the crazy long form on the app, paid a lot of money.   Results would take an hour, they said, so I found my way to the shuttle.

I stood waiting for an hour.  I got there at 9 pm, having finally left Madrid 7 hours earlier.  About the I received the email. I tested positive!  No flying for me!   This can happen for some time after you are symptom free. The only upside was the really nice hotel, lovely dinner and  English breakfast the next morning. 

Fortunately they allowed me to travel so the next day I took the bus from Heathrow to London VIctoria Bus Station, then took another bus leaving at 1130, going through the Chunnel to Lille, France.  From there it’s a 45 minute train where I am now, on the border with Belgium. From the train station it’s about a 10 minute walk to the marina.  I arrived at 8 pm, fortunately not dark yet.  To get into the marina you need a plastic card that you scan at the gate.  I had two.  So I scanned it and got in. 

I walked down the long dock. There’s the boat, I set my backpacks down (yes, two backpacks), climbed onto the rear deck.  I’d recalled leaving a key in both boxes in case I forgot to take one with me from Spain, which indeed I had, which I figured out in Madrid.  The key was indeed in the box and in a moment I was in the boat.

However there was no electricity.  The card I had was supposed to have money on it for electrical, water, and access to the bathroom.  It did not work for electricity.  I gathered some bottles (water also runs off this card so no water at the boat) and walked back down the long dock to the bathroom to get water for the night.  

Nope. The card did not work there either.  Apparently these cards were invalidated cut off once the six months we paid for was up.  
Back to the boat.  Well, back to the gate. It would not open!  So either it was ajar earlier or they gave us one entry on the card, probably the former.  Now what am I going to do?

I start walking along the fence.  Back in January when I was here they removed a section, replacing it with a temporary fence.  I was looking for a way under, through or over.  I did have my wallet and phone with me in the event I could not get in and needed a hotel.  I could do without my backpacks for one night.

Along the way I saw one of maybe 3 occupants living aboard come out of his boat. Fortunately I speak some French. He told me I could get in, just follow the temporary fence to the end.  Mercy bucups and voila your own self – I was back in with my two sips of water for the night and enough left over for a half cup of coffee in the morning.  But at least I was in. It was not so terribly cold out so the lack of heat would not matter. I slept like a log, as you can imagine.

Next day between me and Peg on the phone talking to the harbormaster we got our card charged up.  The harbormaster is a really friendly and helpful woman with boat repair skills.  In September she made some door glides for us after the old plastic ones failed on one of the doors.  Pretty fancy work.  She is cutting me a bit of wood for the exterior box.  Before here she had a workshop.  

We have traveled during the Covid periods on several occasions to get to the boat. This was my first effort to cross the Atlantic. I think I will wait until the US air travel testing requirement is removed. This adventure stretched me to the limits and had I been really ill I would have still been in London now, nearly a week later.

My exposition in Valencia March 27- April 2, 2022

Some of my paintings will be on display in Valencia, Spain at El Cau del Roure The paintings will be on display from March 25 until April 2, 2022. The hours are 19-21hours onThursday, Friday and Saturday, Sunday from 11-14 hours. The catalog is attached. Please come by. I plan to be there. The address is Calle Roure 1, 46014 Valencia, behind Consorci Hospital General Universitari de València.

Croquis Cafe
One of the 4 paintings on display

Fallas ’22: Valencia’s amazing festival

Fallas is Valencia’s annual street festival featuring thousands of fabulous sculptures up to 5 stories in height, such as these from the El Pilar Fallas. Each sculpture, these days made using light weight foam over a wood frame, is created by a local organization, also called a Fallas. They raise money from a variety of sources. These large sculptures require funds in the six figures. They are up for 4-5 days then burned, and work is begun on the following years’ sculptures.

The festival also features fabulous fireworks. See photos in the next post.


Malaga: 2700 years in the making- Part 1

Founded by the Phonecians on what we now call the Guadalmedina River, Málaga is now home to the Picasso Museum and Museo Casa Natal (where he was born), the City Museum, the excellent car museum Museo Automovilístico de Málaga, the CAC (Contemporary Art), a branch of the Russian State Museum, Museo del Vidrio y Cristal de Málaga (Museum of Glass and Crystal) and more. There’s a Roman era theater, Moorish ruins and the amazing artifacts on display at the Museo del Patrimonio Municipal which also has a good art collection. Millions of visitors come each year to enjoy vacations on the Costa del Sol.

Here are a few examples of what’s on display at the Museo del Patrimonio:

Pottery dating to 5-7000 years ago
Beads from the same era, in amazing condition
Neanderthal jaw (note no chin)
Neanderthal jaw bone- note the lack of chin. At least 40,000 years old
Roman Theater, uncovered within the past 50 years. The Moorish era Alcazara in the background

The Cathedral of Malaga was built between 1528 and 1782 in the Renaissance style with many Baroque features as well. Its tower is 84 meters/276′ high.

Beautifully carved choir in the Cathedral
Malaga Cathedral
Interior of the Cathedral