It’s been a busy year for The Travelling Boomer. As 2015 draws to a close, I look back on a year that took me from the jungles of Belize to the bright lights of Paris, from the joie de vivre of Montreal to the castles of the Rhine, from the ancient streets of Prague to a dozen other wonderful places in this great big world.
It was a year that personified the best of what travel is about: seeing new places, making new discoveries, meeting new people, learning more about the world as it was, and as it is. It was a year with a few personal milestones, too: racking up my 50th country as I crossed the border into Guatemala, celebrating my 65th birthday with a night of jazz in the clubs of Havana …
Along the way, however, there were a few moments that stand out from the rest, moments when I felt I had reached one of those magical places that inspire legends. Here are five of the best.
Fairy tale castles
On a visit to Paris in August, I took a side trip to the Loire Valley to see what that region is famous for: its grand châteaux, the fanciful estates that were home to French kings and aristocrats of days gone by. Each was impressive in its own way, but it wasn’t until I set eyes on Château de Chenonceau that I felt I’d seen the real thing.
Chenonceau was known as “the ladies’ château” because of the notable women who had lived there. And the feminine touch was plain to see: graceful white turrets, grand rooms with elaborate tapestries, lovely arches stretching across the River Cher, and a little foot bridge leading out into the well-kept woods behind. It was the setting for a tale of knights and fair ladies, and looking out the window over the placid river scene, it was easy to imagine yourself as the main character — where’s my sword?
A lost world in the jungle
I’ve been to ancient city sites all around the Americas over the years, from Teotihuacan in Mexico to Machu Picchu in Peru. But the big one I had never seen was Tikal, the great Mayan city in the forests of Guatemala. So it was worth the five-hour bus ride from Belize City to see the mystery that had eluded me for many years.
What I saw when I finally reached its gates was much more than I’d imagined. Stretched out through the dense jungle was a huge city, with 3,000 structures that had once been home to a population of up to 100,000 people. Their buildings and temples loomed up in front of me as I wandered the forest paths, and in the deserted plazas and living spaces, I could almost hear their ancient voices. Or maybe it was just a distant falcon …
Having a beer with Hemingway
If you read The Travelling boomer, you know I’m a fan of the works of Ernest Hemingway — who, like me, spent part of his career writing for The Toronto Star. He lived in a number of places in his lifetime, but his most famous haunt was Paris, where he spent much of the 1920s writing and hanging out with other luminaries in its famous literary cafés.
So it was almost with a sense of awe that I took a seat on the terrace of Le Select, the café where much of the action takes place in The Sun Also Rises, my favourite Hemingway novel set in Paris. There it was, emanating a warm glow on Boulevard du Montparnasse on a sultry Paris evening. And there I sat, enjoying a beer at one of its marble-topped tables and drinking in the historic atmosphere. I took a photo of the table, just as the waiter approached. He jumped out of my shot, with an apology – I guess I wasn’t the first Hemingway fan he’d seen. But I didn’t care: I was at Le Select, and it was a moment to remember.
A river runs through it
I’ve been on quite a few ocean cruises, but I had never experienced the other kind of cruising – the smaller-ship kind that takes you down the great rivers of the world to see places the ocean ships can’t go. That is, until Viking Cruises invited me to come along on one of its cruises down the Moselle, Rhine and Main Rivers in the summer of 2015. It was a 12-day itinerary, from Paris to Prague, and it was truly a voyage of discovery.
We saw the great sights of the great cities, walked the cobblestoned streets of ancient towns, and stood in the courtyards and bed chambers of medieval castles. But for me, the most enjoyable moment was the afternoon I stayed in and just watched the river roll by from my balcony. The green countryside, the campgrounds with children at play, the small towns with their ancient towers – it was like a moving tableau, and somehow gliding along the river made it all seem wonderfully peaceful. That was an unexpected pleasure, and (hint) I have the chance to experience it again in 2016.
A hilarious night in Montreal
It had been too long since I’d last set foot in Montreal. I’d been around the world and back again, but somehow, over the years, I’d never made the time to revisit one of Canada’s great cities. So this summer I hopped the train to see it once again. And what I saw made me wish I’d come back years before: a vibrant city with a great historic district, cool ethnic neighbourhoods, lively night life and a huge downtown entertainment district that each summer hosted a major comedy festival called Juste pour rire — or in English, Just for Laughs.
Strolling through the gates was like entering the world’s greatest fun fair: cartoon characters wandering the streets, comedy acts performing at side stages, people lining up at food trucks for poutine and beaver tails, children enjoying the fun rides. And as night fell, the magic happened. The midway lit up with a festive glow, and the main stage came alive with a comedy spectacle before a crowd of thousands. And as the show neared its end, somewhere over the harbour, fireworks lit the night sky. It was a night I’ll remember for a long time.
Those are my five magic moments of 2015. I hope you had a few memorable moments as well – if so, leave a comment and tell us what they were. As for me, 2016 is shaping up to be another great year of travel, starting with my trip to Ecuador and a visit to the Galapagos Islands in January. So stay tuned to The Travelling Boomer – there are a lot more great moments to be had.