Lunch with the Count de Rully at his Chateau in Burgundy, France

Photo ©Jean Janssen Chateau de Rully, France

Today our river cruise ship is docked in Macon, France in the Burgundy region.  The focus in this area is on wine and gastronomy.  There are small villages here with four-star restaurants and the fields are filled with vineyards as far as the eye can see. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beaune, France

We started our day with breakfast at our assigned spot in the dining room with waiter service from the buffet.  In addition to the many buffet items, they also offer a daily breakfast special.  Today it was banana bread.  Boris and I decided to give it a try.  We were served was a thick wonderful bread, spread with fresh peanut butter, covered in fresh bananas, highlighted with honey, and topped with bacon crumbs.  That’s right!  It was an Elvis sandwich, the gourmet French variety of course.  Rocky would be so proud that we partook.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Courtyard of the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France

Today you had the option of the ride to Beaune, France through the beautiful countryside, a tour of the famous Hotel Dieu, and free time in this charming town.  Lunch was on your own.  For something extra special, you could visit Beaune and then go on to Rully for a wine tasting, lunch, and châteaux tour at the local castle.  We chose to add the castle option.  Both of these tours required that you were vaccinated.  A new policy in France requires that you show proof of vaccination before you can enter most indoor public spaces.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Beaune, France

Any unvaccinated guests, could take a city tour of Macon with lunch on the boat.  Only twelve guests didn’t take one of the tours into Beaune.  I don’t know if they are vaccinated or not, but they missed a special day.  Beginning next week, Uniworld is requiring all guests to be fully vaccinated at least two weeks prior to their travel.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beaune, France

We had an early departure time at 8:30 a.m. for the hour-long drive to Beaune.  The good news is that we were early for the Hotel Dieu tour.  A line was already forming, but our prior reservations meant we got to skip the line.  After just a brief stop at the Information Center for city maps, we went straight to the beautiful and famous Hotel Dieu des Hospices Civils de Beaune.  Hotel Dieu was the name given in the Middle Ages to hospitals for the poor that were located in urban centers.  This particular hospital was built in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to the Duke of Burgundy, and his wife, Guigone de Salins. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beaune, France

“Beaune was coming out of the 100-year war, a period of unrest and plague that decimated the countryside. It was for the poor and the most disadvantaged that this masterpiece inspired by the most outstanding hôtels-Dieu of Flanders and Paris was built.”  Office of Tourisme of Beaune Pays Beaunois.   Nicolas’ pious wife Guigone urged him to do something to save his soul.  The chancellor was a wealthy man and already in his 60s, an old age in the 15th century.  The chosen outlet for his gift was a spectacularly beautiful hospital in the city of Beaune, a Palace for the Poor.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beaune, France

Hotel Dieu was classified as a historic monument in 1862.  The building continued to serve as a hospital until 1971.  In a beautifully ironic twist, portions of the hospital are closed today and not available for touring as the space is being used to administer COVID vaccinations. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen Title roof of the Hotel Dieu in Beaune, France as seen from the courtyard.

The façade is impressive, but once inside the courtyard you see what Beaune’s Hotel Dieu is perhaps best known for, its beautiful and colorful varnished tile roof.  Oddly, the main building which is the oldest part of the structure has a slate roof in a uniform color.  At that time in history, great wealth could be demonstrated by the quality of your roof and slate was considered the most expensive and therefore the most desirable material.  We took some time to enjoy the courtyard and this wonderful setting.  The polychrome roofs made for wonderful photographs, probably even better later in the day when hit by the full sun.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Great Hall of the Poor, Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France.

Next, we went inside the main hall with its 28 curtained beds lining the two long sides of the room.  At the far end of The Great Hall of the Poor is the chapel.  If they couldn’t restore your health, at least they could address your soul.  The Great Hall is a huge space.  Because of the foul air associated with illness, a large open space with windows was deemed best.  Of course, this isolation was ruined by the fact that the beds were right next to each other and they put anywhere from 1-4 people in each bed.  The large room was also very difficult to heat and never got above 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter so the patients would huddle together (and even closer to one experiencing fever) and then close their curtains further confining the germs.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Some of the 28 beds in The Great Hall of the Poor, Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Busts of local dignitaries and the animals they looked like decorate the walls of
The Great Hall of the Poor, Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France

The main hall also has the carved heads and faces of local dignitaries next to a carving of an animal they resembled.  Who would want to be placed next to the carved pig?  The patients probably got a good laugh when they looked up.  The hall’s chapel is also very lovely.  The chancellor died first and was buried in the family crypt, but his wife, who found great joy and fulfillment at the hospital, asked to be buried in the Hotel Chapel.  The tile floor, added later, features individual tiles in a design intertwining the initials of the founding couple.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Final resting place of Guigone de Salins, one of the founders of the Hotel Dieu. The surrounding tiles are decorated with the entwined initials of the two founders, Nicholas Rolin and Guigone, of the Hotel
Photo ©Jean Janssen. One of the other patient spaces at the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France.

The opulence of the Great Hall of the Poor is striking and the poor who came here probably never experienced such luxury before.  Outside of the hall, we toured more patient spaces, some richly decorated with fewer beds.  We visited the Saint-Anne Room and the Saint-Hugh Room.  The Saint-Nicolas Room where the straw model, medical objects, and costumes are displayed was closed to the public today.  When the Sun King, Louis XIV, visited Beaune’s hotel Dieu, he was horrified that the men and women slept in the same room.  He decreed they must be separated and thereafter the richly appointed spaces were reserved only for men.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Kitchen at the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dragon’s Blood in the Pharmacy of the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pharmacy at the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France

We also made a stop in the hospital kitchen out of which not only the patients were served, but the community.  Free bread was handed out to all the citizens.  In the Middle Ages, the bread was used first as a plate or bowl and then as sustenance.  We made a stop in the laboratory where equipment used to produce the medicine was on display. The medicine was probably initially brought in, but over time the sisters who staffed the facility learned how to make the medicines and took over this responsibility.  The laboratory was connected to the pharmacy where the jar of Dragon’s Blood was the highlight.  As the guide suggested, it might have been right out of Harry Potter.  For the record, there is apparently a Dragon bush or tree in France that the substance comes from. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen Altar Screen by Rogier Van de Weyden in the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France

Our final stop in the Hotel Dieu was through the Saint-Louis Room to see the altar screen that the chancellor and his wife commissioned from Flemish artist Rogier Van der Weyden to adorn the chapel.  The polyptych of the Last Judgement is housed in a separate, temperature-controlled room.  In the closed position, the screen is mostly in black and white, but when opened (as it was on Sundays) a very colorful scene of the Last Judgment was revealed.  As a judged soul, you definitely wanted to be headed to the left side and the beautiful golden castle, rather than the fiery right side.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Cathedral of Notre Dame de Beaune
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Interior frescos in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Beaune
Photo ©Jean Janssen Exterior decoration, Cathedral Notre Dame de Beaune

After the tour we were given free time to explore the town.  Boris and I first found an ATM machine to get cash in Euros.  We have found the best exchange rates through ATMs rather than the exchange shops and kiosks in major cities or airports.  We wandered through the town and made a stop at the Romanesque Church, the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Beaune. “Despite its relatively modest size, [the cathedral] is one of the last great Romanesque churches in Burgundy.”  Trip Advisor.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Village carousel, Beaune, France

Knowing we were going to a tasting and lunch directly after our visit in Beaune, we didn’t bother with a café.  It was Monday morning and most of the shops were closed, which is typical.  It is also August and many French shop owners close during this month to take their own vacation.  We found ourself at the square near our meeting point and sat down and watched the children enjoying the carousel.  We have seen carousels in many French villages and towns on this trip and well as on other visits to France.  I got a kick out of hearing songs from Disney’s The Jungle Book movie being sung in French as the carousel made its rounds.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beaune, France

Beaune is also famous for its annual wine auction held annually on the third Sunday in November.  85% of the premier crus and grand crus sold at this auction come from the 60 hectares of wine estate associated with the Hotel Dieu.  Gifts of vineyards to support the Hospices de Beaune were being made as early as 1457.   Christie’s auction house now organizes and runs the sale, considered the “most famous wine charity auction in the world.”  Proceeds support the Hotel Dieu.  Office of Tourisme of Beaune Pays Beaunois.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunflower fields in Burgundy.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vineyards, Rully, France

From Beaune, we made our way through the countryside passing field after field of vineyards and the occasional restorative sunflower field.  Our destination was the hamlet of Rully for our lunch and castle visit.  The Count de Rully welcomed us into his home and wine estate.  We made a photo stop just before our arrival so we could take pictures of the castle, as it appeared from this vantage point.  A castle is a military structure.  Many were later converted into residences, as this one was.  In France, a structure of this type used as a residence is called a chateau.  The structure at Rully was at one time a castle and is now a chateau. Rully also has the distinction of being a wine estate.  I asked the Count and he shared that Rully Castle has never been attacked.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Outer courtyard, Chateau de Rully
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Inside the Chateau is a portrait of the Count’s grandfather who removed the drawbridge and filled in the moat after he almost fell into it.

The castle once had a ten-foot dry moat surrounding the perimeter and a drawbridge.  You could still see the hinges for the drawbridge that was removed by the Count’s great grandfather.  Once inside the courtyard, we were greeted by the rather young and unassuming Count de Rully, Raoul de Ternary.  He is very personable.   He is married with three young sons.  His eleven-year-old is slated to be the next count.  He struck me as rather impoverished.  The French government gives no assistance for the upkeep of the estate, so the Count offers meals, tours, and receptions to maintain the structure which dates from the 1190s. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Wine Cellar, Chateau de Rully, France
Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Chateau’s best.

His estate includes vineyards and we went first to the wine cellar where we sampled two of his chardonnay wines.  The first is produced by a collective whether the local growers share their good, but not the top-rated grapes.  About 10% of the grapes in this wine came from his estate.  It was a light, fruity, and rather drinkable wine.  These grapes were often machine picked and fermented in metal containers.  The second sample was of his grand cru.  These grapes are hand-picked from a small plot on his estate just behind the chateaux.  Regionally, they do not want a very oaky chardonnay, so the aging is done in second- or third-year-old oak barrels.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The “front door” of the Chateau Rully

The wine tasting was followed by lunch in the converted former stables, still sporting some of the estate’s old carriages and family portraits.  It was a very tasty lunch of beef bourguignon, a potato casserole, fresh bread, and the estate’s pinot noir.  I did not care for the wine, but the food was excellent.  Dessert was a beautiful apple tart.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Count de Rully takes us into the inner courtyard of the Chateau.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Inside the inner courtyard of the Chateau. The oldest part of the castle is the tower in the center background.

We finished our estate visit with a tour of some of the historic family rooms.  The castle was started back in the 12th century, beginning with the towers.  The towers were originally the only portions of the castle where anyone lived.  The castle eventually expanded to four towers and two courtyards.  The ramparts are still in place.  The chateau has 40 rooms, including 20 bedrooms.  However, heating is an expensive exercise, so the count only maintains a portion of the rooms.  On the tour you won’t see the spaces the family currently lives in. Instead, you tour the ground floors rooms including the main sitting room or salon, the large dining room, the billiards room (designed to be used only by the men), a small library which served as the family chapel, the ladies’ boudoir (or gossip room for the ladies), and the oldest section of the chateau which housed the original kitchen.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The portrait of Marie Fernand de Vaudrey in the Chateau de Rully.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. View through an interior window of the Chateau de Rully.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. The billiard table in the Chateau de Rully covered in the family’s coat of arms.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. The lady’s boudoir in Chateau de Rully

In each room, there are many family portraits and paintings by family members.  The Count can trace his lineage back for 46 generations.  The family’s last name has changed over the years.  If there was no male heir, the female heiress married and took on her husband’s name.  The current family name is De Ternary as it has been for the last three generations.  In one room the Count pointed out the portrait of the chateau’s lady, Marie Fernand de Vaudrey.  The Count de Rully described her as “the most important woman in the family’s history other than his wife”.  She was the mother of 14 children.  Already a widow at the time of the French Revolution, she was beloved by the community.  As nobility, she was imprisoned only briefly during the revolution.  It was the local community that petitioned for her release.  Because the family was able to survive through this period, the title is preserved to this day.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the dining room, the Count de Rully showed us this unique family heirloom, a highchair that converted into a child’s scooter.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ceiling decoration in the dining room of the Chateau de Rully.

The last stop on the tour was the chateau’s kitchen that was part of the original structure.  The kitchen was last renovated in the 1800s when a new tile floor was installed and an oven made its first appearance.  This was still the only kitchen in use when the Count was a boy.  Today they have a modern kitchen.  The Count said the castle does have a cellar, but he has no idea where to access it.  He suspects that the trapdoor is under the kitchen’s tile floor.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The chateau’s kitchen in the oldest part of the castle.

You could purchase postcards with the castle’s recipes printed on them.  The Count also sold his estate wine.  I got a bottle of the grand cru chardonnay.  The Count de Rully signed the bottle for me.  I enjoyed the visit, mostly for the reality check on what surviving nobility live like.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Count de Rully signs a bottle of his wine for me.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Everyone at the Chateau de Rully employs safe practices during the COVID pandemic.

We drove back to Macon through the lovely vineyards.  The ship sails tonight from Macon and returns to Lyon for some touring there when we will be more rested than on our arrival day in Lyon.  Just before arriving at the ship, the guide made a few announcements including that my suitcase had arrived at the ship.  I gave out a cry of joy.  Natasha will be dressing in style for the Captain’s Welcome Reception tonight.  Never have I ever been so happy to forgo a nap in order to unpack my suitcase.  More adventures in Burgundy and Provence (in clean clothes) to come.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vineyards at the Chateau de Rully
Photo ©Jean Janssen. The priority tag ended up not meaning much, but at least my bag made it to the ship.
Photo ©Jean Janssen. Probably the seat I would have chosen on Beaune’s carousel.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An International Traveler Again

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Uniworld’s SS Catherine

There has been a long drought, but Natasha is once again an international traveler.  Boris and I left today for France to take a river cruise through Burgundy and Provence.  The rules continue to change-including a change in COVID testing that happened just this week.  Fully vaccinated and staying on a river ship that is smaller than most hotels, we feel as safe as it is going to be for a while.  France also instituted policies that go into effect the day after our arrival that require that you must be vaccinated to go into most buildings.  While that will mean we have to carry around our vaccination cards, it will also make the indoor spaces safer.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cathedral Norte Dame de Beaune

Check in to your flight(s) with an international destination also necessitates another level of requirements.  We got multiple emails in the days prior to departure to ensure that we were “travel ready”.  You have to check the requirements for countries where you will be in transit as well as those for your final destination.  Sometimes your COVID test has to be done no more than 48 hours before departure, sometimes 72.  Sometimes you fit an exemption; sometimes you do not.  Sometimes you can upload the paperwork 48 hours prior to departure, sometimes 12.  Residents of certain countries can travel to others, some cannot.  As of this writing, having been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks prior to travel, we will able to enter Germany (in transit) and then France with an uploaded vaccination card.  You must also carry the original with you.  We uploaded our information through the airline website.  The EU authorities had it in their system when we crossed passport control in Germany.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

It also didn’t help that they had completely changed the airline check-in and TSA security checkpoints at IAH while the airport is under major renovation.  Oh, and did I mention that the luggage belts were not working?  We were relieved when we got to the gate and very glad that we had gotten to the airport an hour earlier than we normally would have. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. I (almost) had a row to myself on our international flight to Frankfurt. United has replaced the complimentary rectangular pillows with ones shaped like a neck pillow.

We had a quick turnaround in Dulles (Washington DC) with no time for lunch.  I am not big on airline food, but I had to partake on the flight to Frankfurt.  Before boarding, there was an extra check-in at the gate counter and we were glad all our information was already uploaded in the system.  While the flight to Dulles was completely full, I had a row to myself (until someone moved over to the end of my row at mealtime) on the flight to Frankfurt.  I ended up starting an HBO series that had been highly rated and watched the whole series.  I never slept.  Prior to takeoff from Washington DC, we had pulled away from the gate and then sat on the apron for about an hour. 

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Courtyard of the Hotel Dieu, Beaune, France

I would have used the term tarmac (instead of apron) here because that it what I thought the hard areas that the planes traveled and parked on were.  However, I learned when preparing this post that tarmac is really a trademarked term for the materials used to create the roadways at airports.  The proper terms for the different areas used by the plane are the apron-where they park and load/unload passengers and luggage; the taxiway-surfaces the airplanes move along to position for takeoff (and to the gates after landing); and the runways-that the planes use to take off and land.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Color in concrete

Anyway, the point is that we left very late and weren’t able to make up all the time in the air.  We landed in Frankfurt 20 minutes late.  That might not seem like much, but when you have to clear customs-as Germany was our EU point of entry-and only have an hour and 10-minute layover to begin with, you are in trouble.  Rather than having a gate assignment (maybe because we were late), the plane was parked out on the apron and buses took us on what seemed like a rather long ride to the terminal.  Of course, that ate up even more of our short layover time.  Then we crossed through passport control.  Fortunately, we were in the first bus and near the front of the line.  Also, since our vaccination information was pre-loaded, we got through quicker.  Our connected flight was on the other end, but at least in the same terminal as the arriving flight.  We ran.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Viviers, France

Although I am still not sure how Boris and I made it with 10 minutes to spare before takeoff, fortunately the gate agents were still letting passengers aboard the flight from Frankfurt to Lyon.  It was a short flight to Lyon, France where our river boat, the SS Catherine, is berthed.  We are meeting the transfer agent just past baggage claim.  Boris’ suitcase came off with the first group.  Yes, you guessed it.  Mine never showed up.  There is no lost luggage office or luggage officials in Lyon.  If you have missing luggage, you have to fill out a form at a kiosk in baggage claim.  Unfortunately, if your lodging is on a river ship it makes it a little more difficult to fill out the form.  Even with one employee trying to help, I was still not able to complete the kiosk questionnaire.  Boris went out to let the transfer agent know what was going on.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Beaune, France

One of the benefits of a small airport was that they let both Boris and the agent come back inside the secured baggage claim area.  Speaking French to the employee, the agent was able to assist me in completing the form.   We are hopeful the bag is in Frankfurt and will come over on the afternoon flight.  Our ship leaves its berth in Lyon at 6 pm.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The TGV train station connects to the airport terminal in Lyon. We walked through on our way to the bus.

We had a bit of a walk out to the coach park and during that time we learned that the next flight to Lyon leaves Frankfurt at 6:30 pm and arrives at 7:45.   After getting us on the bus, the transfer agent let me know that she would go back and update the information to let them know that the bag would have to be sent to Macon, France.  We won’t arrive in Macon until 1:30 am, so no chance I will get the bag today.  Hopefully, it made it to Frankfurt.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Beaune, France

This trip I had done something I normally don’t do.   Aware of our tight layovers, I had packed an extra set of clothes in my carry-on bag.  It is always a good idea, but I don’t always have room in the carry-on for it.  I had also had lunch with a friend the week before I left who mentioned that she always added a nightgown to her carry-on bag to sleep in that first night.  I put that in too.  I won’t have everything I need, but thank goodness I packed a few extras.  These weren’t our original flights, but an airline cancellation resulted in us having to change our outbound flights.  We normally would have given ourself a little more time (and chosen fewer layovers).  However, we were just happy to find a way to get there.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Avignon, France

There were only 5 of us on a large bus headed from the airport to the ship. We learned later that there were only 55 passengers on the cruise for this itinerary, so our bus was actually carrying almost 10% of the ship’s passengers.  Our cruise line Uniworld has been running cruises since early July with capacity ranging from 30-100 guests per sailing.  The ship can accommodate 120 passengers.  The waiters tell us they love it with fewer guests; they can give more personal service and it is easier to accommodate social distancing.  The staff is so happy to be back at work.  Not everyone received “unemployment benefits” during the closure.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. As we walked across the gangplank from shore to ship, there were lovely swans floating in the water.

Shortly after our arrival, lunch started.  Uniworld offers extensive, elegant buffets for breakfast and lunch.  Currently, in line with heath regulations, you are accompanied through the buffet line by an employee who serves the food onto your plate.  They also get your drinks and any additional items you might want.  It was open seating at lunch, but that evening we were told that whatever seat we selected that night would be our seat through the cruise.  The tables are set up so that only family or friends traveling together sit together in the dining room.  This is a change of the usual pattern of sharing your table with other guests during meals.  It is a wonderful way to get to know your fellow passengers and we enjoy that aspect of the Uniworld cruises.  I am sure the practice will come back after pandemic restrictions are lifted.  We are hopeful that we will meet some other people traveling with us during the cruise excursions.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from our (closed and tinted) stateroom French Balcony. We are docked in Lyon, France on Saone River. You can see all the houseboats docked along the opposite site of the River.

The day ended with a welcome from the captain and the hotel director, followed by a briefing by the cruise director.  She stopped by and greeted me personally to let me know she knew about my bag situation.  She was in communication with the transfer agent and had recommended the bag be delivered sometime the next day while we are docked in Macon from 1:30 am to 4:30 pm.  Fingers crossed.  It is so nice that they are taking the time to give the issue their personal attention.

Photo ©Jean Janssen There is a waterfall behind the horse statue in the lobby of Uniworld’s SS Catherine. Behind the waterfall is a glass elevator. Standing inside the elevator looking toward the backside of the waterfall, I took this photograph. It almost looks like a painting.

We had a wonderful dinner with drinks and in spite of an afternoon nap, decided to go to bed early and try to get over our jet lag.  Tomorrow our exploration of this region of France begins.  Stay with me as the following posts will cover our travel in Burgundy and Provence.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Beaune, France
.Photo ©Jean Janssen. Chateau de Rully, France

Posted in cruises, international, River Cruise | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More Michigan with Mom

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The weeping willows in Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan

It is not unusual for us just to do regular stuff while I am in Grand Rapids, Michigan with my mom. We run errands, do doctor appointment, shop, and, well, eat. It is significantly cooler here than at home where temperatures are already reaching 99 degrees Fahrenheit. It is early for it to be that hot in Texas; usually we don’t get to those temperatures in June. In contrast, being outside here in Michigan is so pleasant, especially in the evening when it cools down.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. My Uncle Father Jim and cousins Mary Beth and Jim joined mom and I in the backyard of my grandparents’ home. This is where my mother lived as a child and where she is currently living. To the left, is my great-grandparents’ house. When I visit in the summer, I often set up an outside office in this space. Cool evenings meant we could enjoy meals outside in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Between errands, we did sneak in a few other outings. Seems I have spent a lot of time on the edge of the West Side just where Michigan Street crosses the bridge over the Grand River and becomes Bridge street. The corner of Bridge and Stocking is apparently my corner. Lots of wonderful restaurants and bars here, some old, some new. They have even taken concrete barriers and blocked off part of the busy street to create outdoor dining. More restrictions are being lifted here in a few days, but already vaccinated residents are embracing the summer outside.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Blue Dog Tavern, Grand Rapids Michigan, Note that a bank was the original tenant of this historic building at 638 Stocklng Avenue

My cousin Tom met me at The Blue Dog Tavern, just around the corner on Stocking and a bit away from all the activity on Bridge Street. The bar is reviving after the worst of the pandemic. This historic building was at one time a bank and they still have the vault to prove it. Outside, the building still bears the bank’s name. Look for the traditional pub sign and the banner featuring the blue dog at this corner establishment.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Blue Dog Tavern, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Photo ©Jean Janssen. The bank vault is still in place at the historic building where The Blue Dog Tavern is located. In spite of how it may look in the picture, the restrooms are not located inside the vault. 🙂

We were there after work on a weekday and it was pretty full. The area around Bridge is home to students and lots of young singles, but Blue Dog is removed enough that tonight’s patrons were slightly older than the college crowd. There is a good pub menu and several options if you want a burger, hot dog, or craft beer. Tom recommends the tater tots which come in many varieties.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The Blue Dog Tavern, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Today, Mom is going for a eye doctor’s appointment and then she wants to stop by the post office on Michigan and cross the bridge over the Grand River for a return to the Bridge Street Market. The appointment took long enough that we were ready for lunch before buying our groceries. We ate at Maggie’s Kitchen at 636 Bridge Street at the light at Stocking. Parking is in the back. This is a truly authentic Mexican food eatery, complete with specialty beverages from Mexico. Yes, I came all the way from Texas to eat Mexican food.

Maggie herself. Her authentic Mexican recipes are the backbone of Maggie’s Kitchen on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan

We love Maggie’s. The restaurant celebrated its 38th birthday on May 5. The date is no accident; Cinco de Mayo (May 5) is Mexican Independence Day Maggie (who I have met several times) is retired now, but she still comes in two days a week to check on things. The tacos and burritos are probably the most popular, but I love the the enchiladas. I always add a Jarrito fruit beverage too.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Maggie’s son now manages Maggie’s Kitchen. He moved here with his family from Laredo, Texas 40 years ago. He told us his mom is doing well and still comes in two days a week to see how things are going. Of course, she cooks when she is in. My mom is still wearing her dark glasses post eye appointment.

Afterwards it was the return visit to Bridge Street Market. Michigan takes a 10 cent deposit on plastic, can, and glass beverage containers, but you have to return the containers to a store that sells that particular beverage. So before going inside, we put the bottles in the machines (kinda fun it you don’t have to do it all the time) and got our receipts. Some of the people at the recycling station have made a business of collecting the items that others just threw away instead of recycling. They are doing it for the money, but I was just glad to see the containers being recycled. Michigan has had this policy for decades and the return stations at the stores are well established.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. A proud shopper leaving The Bridge Street Market in Grand Rapids, Michigan after successfully navigating the automated check-out machine.

My readers will share in my success. Mom and I safely navigated the checkout station, even utilizing a coupon and redeeming our recycling receipts. Mom was particularly excited that we snagged some of the manager’s specials but still made it to the required total to use the coupon; more Topo Chico helped. It is the little victories that can mean so much.

Photo @Jean Janssen. Mom likes to celebrate her Polish heritage. Here she is with her apron from Poland, a gift from Emma. My cousin Mary Beth models the matching gloves. Emma and I actually buy wonderful items from Poland from the largest distributer of Polish pottery in the world, Polmedia Polish Pottery and Boleslawiec Stoneware. Polmedia is ironically located in Seguin, Texas, about a two-hour drive from where we live in Houston.

I am doing some cooking while we are here, but I also wanted to have another lunch of Lake Perch before heading home. There is a seafood market on Plainfield Ave less than 8 miles from the house that also does wonderful fried fish. On another visit years ago, the spot was briefly held by a family wanted to make a go of the venture when the established owners were ready to move on. The food was so bad (and the proprietors so completely overwhelmed) that we didn’t go back. Sanitary Fish is just so close and our other perch experience in Wyoming was not what we hoped for, so we decided to give it another try.

Sanitary Fish at 2468 Plainfield Ave NE, Grand Rapids, Michigan

We are happy to report that Sanitary Fish and Marketplace is under experienced ownership and that the perch was terrific. Their health protocols are also top notch. They have thick screens and a mask policy is still in place for all customers. I called ahead and they asked us to come in 30 minutes, so allow time for the preparation. Since I am trying to eek out every possible moment of comfortable weather, we headed over to Riverside Park to enjoy our fish and fries.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Tree trunk in Riverside Park, Grand Rapids, Michigan

This beautiful park, also known as Comstock Riverside Park, sits along the Grand River. It is a long, narrow urban park with historic bridges, baseball fields, pavilions, boat ramps for fishermen, and lots of picnic tables. My grandmother loved this park and I have been coming here for decades. My uncle chose a spot where we were bordered on one side by the river and the other by the park’s lovely ponds. We were near the children’s playground.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Canadian Geese along the pond in Riverside Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Riverside Park is located at 2001 Monroe. There is a bike lane on Monroe and at least three roundabouts near the park. It is across the street from the Veterans Retirement Home. Our view to one side was the weeping willows which lined the pond. Canadian Geese swam on the pond and meandered in the grass on the other side. With a cool breeze, we enjoyed the view and our wonderful lunch of fried lake perch.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The surface of the picnic table shows the decades of use (and the varieties of paint colors) that have graced the Riverside Park’s picnic tables over the decades.

Next it was time for Mom’s haircut. It was the end of the day on Friday and I thought the salon would be packed, but it was thinning out. Most of their patrons are elderly so they come earlier in the day. The stylists were very friendly and I asked about their COVID experience. They were completely closed for three months and Julie said she didn’t dare do any work in people’s homes. She knew of stylists that were fined $1,000 and lost their license for violating the prohibition during the worst of the pandemic. Of course that is the only way to protect the public health, especially in an elderly population. They did mention that many of their clients have limited strength and dexterity and come to them each week. The shutdown was particularly hard of them; many of their clients were unable to wash their hair for three months.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mom shows off her new haircut.

The next morning Mom slept in while I headed out to the Meijer Sports Complex in Rockford to see one of my nephews (yes a second cousin again, but I explained that) pitch in the 15 and 16 year old division of a summer baseball league tournament. Kyle is really a good pitcher and I hope to lure him to Texas to play college ball. It has been two years since I have seen him pitch (COVID again) and his skills have massively improved. Plus, he now towers over me, is finished with the braces, and speaks in a deepened voice. Even with a few sprinkles and cooler temperatures, I loved being outside to start off the day. The rest of the day is work around the house and visiting with more of my cousins.

Kyle and I at the field, post game. I can say I knew him when…when he becomes a famous player.

Sunday is Father’s Day and my uncle is busy. As a Roman Catholic Priest, this is his busiest day of the week. Mom and I are on our own so I suggested we go for brunch after mass. We decided on The Old Goat in the transitioning neighborhood of Alger Heights. The Old Goat is part of a restaurant family in Grand Rapids that includes The Electric Cheetah, another favorite. The Cheetah is closed on Sundays, but The Old Goat has a fabulous brunch menu. I opted for the steak and eggs. Mom, who likes more sweet than savory, choose the French Toast.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Old Goat in Alger Heights in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

We drove through ever changing neighborhoods as we headed south of Eastern Ave to reach the transitional Alger Heights area where The Old Goat is located. According to, “Alger Heights is a neighborhood…with a population of 7,106… and is one of the best places to live in Michigan. Living in Alger Heights offers residents a dense suburban feel and most residents own their homes. In Alger Heights there are a lot of parks. Many families and young professionals live in Alger Heights and residents tend to have moderate political views.” The site rates the neighborhood as an A- and named it the 7th best neighborhood to buy a house in Grand Rapids; the 9th most diverse neighborhood; and the 5th best in terms of a low cost of living. The site rated 31 desirable neighborhoods in the Grand Rapids area. Alger Heights posted pretty impressive statistics for the second largest city in Michigan.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Old Goat in Alger Heights in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The Old Goat has pleasant outdoor seating along Eastern Avenue, although we chose to sit inside under the alternating lighting of retired church lights and oil barrel overhead fixtures. Parking for The Old Goat is around the back. There was a steady and diverse crowd of patrons and we did have a bit of a wait for a table. It was well worth it. I highly recommend their food. We enjoyed our food and drinks while listening to the jazz quartet performing during the brunch.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Of course we finished that bottle of sparkling wine.

I have to say one of the highlights for me was the mimosas. You can get a single for $5 or a pitcher for $24. I thought that pricing was off so I asked how many mimosas came in the pitcher. Glad I asked. If you order the “pitcher” they actually bring you a bottle of Michigan champagne-yes, I know there is really no such thing, but it is on the bottle-and a carafe of orange juice and you mix to your desired potency. What a deal! Yes, I ordered the pitcher. For the record, a sparkling wine can only be champagne if produced in the Champagne region of France. Apparently this Michigan winery is flying under the radar.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Yes, they really call it Michigan Champagne.

The Old Goat is at 2434 Eastern Ave near Ken’s Fruit Market. Ken’s is a small traditional grocery store serving the Alger Heights community since 2010. They have a wonderful meat market and fresh fruits and vegetables. However, in my mother’s eyes their claim to fame is the hard candies and salt water taffy that is sold by the pound. The mix and match collection means you put them all in the same bag and have to sort them out at home. Of course, we popped into Ken’s after brunch. Ken’s has another, larger location on Plainfield Avenue which opened in 2012. They also recently opened Ken’s Farm Market in Ionia, Michigan where Ken got his start in the grocery business.

Parking lot entrance to Ken’s Fruit Market in the Alger Heights neighborhood, Grand Rapids, MIchigan

After a big brunch and that “pitcher” of mimosas, we decided a bit of walking was in order, so we stopped at the Fulton Street Market on the way home. The best, but most crowded, time to visit the market is on Saturdays when the farmers bring in their produce. Don’t expect cheaper prices than the food store chains, but everything is fresh picked for the market. On Sunday, it becomes a craft market; not all the stalls are used. Today is Father’s Day so it wasn’t crowded at all.

The Fulton Street Farmer’s Market was founded in 1922 and my mother has been going their her whole life. Although the current structure dates from this century, the market has been operating at this same location and in this same configuration for 99 years. During the growing season, May-October, produce is available at markets held on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, Saturdays only during the off season. The number of booths occupied varies with the season and day of the week.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Mom with her mother’s lilies

One of the things often found at the market is fresh flowers. When we got home from the market, we took a few pictures of the lilies that border the garage which were originally planted by my grandmother.

The garage has been around for a while. This is my mom and uncle in front of the garage in the 1940s. Different door, but the same structure.

“My trip is winding down, but there are always new things to try. This evening it is Pietro’s on 28th Street. The address is actually 2780 Birchcrest Dr., but it runs parallel to 28th with just a grassy strip in between.  The restaurant serves familiar Americanized Italian food, but it is far better than the chain restaurants. Pietro’s mades their own pasta. The also have a banquet facility in the back.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Pietros, Grand Rapids, Michigan

We didn’t get off to such a good start. We arrived right on time, but there was no handicapped parking available (only two spaces for a large restaurant and banquet space?) so I drove around until I thought I better just drop Mom off at the door. She got to the hostess at 6:03 for 6 p.m. reservations. I walked in a few minutes later after parking and the hostess’s first words were “you are late”. She had found the reservation, but said we would have to wait 30 minutes. Another couple came in after us and were seated promptly. The group of 4 that arrived before us and had a reservation were still waiting when we were finally seated. The table where we were seated could have accommodated them.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mom checks out the menu at Pietros, Grand Rapids, Michigan

The restaurant was originally recommended to Mom because of their Sunday Brunch. They are no longer hosting that as of the COVID closure. They do still have their Mystery Dinners. One of the things that really surprised me was that they gave us each an electronic menu on a tablet. Innovative, but during a pandemic? I promptly pull out a sanitized cloth and wiped them both down. Once you turned them on and figured out how to use them, you were rewarded with lots of information. They even have pictures of all the food they serve. Mom struggled a little with it.

Photo @Jean Janssen. Loved the wood accents, tiled-edged tables, and the fabulous floor at Pietros in Grand Rapids, Michigan

As I said, the food was uncomplicated but tasty. The portions were generous. We had rosemary chicken with potatoes and veggies and a pasta trio combination. I think the restaurant is still staffing up after COVID and like a lot of the country is having to deal with a worker storage. On the way out, the hostess told me she had only been working there for two weeks and this was her first night alone. I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt on service. Emma had a good experience on a previous visit.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Part of the small interior of the Choo Choo Grill, Grand Rapids, Michigan

The next morning my uncle and I sorted and taste-tested the candies from Ken’s Fruit Market. Candy for breakfast is not recommended; we did our testing after the nice breakfast Mom made us. It is my last day here, so Father Jim is staying around for the day. I had a Zoom meeting and packing to do, but we still had a great day. We wanted to squeeze in one more picnic and food from one of mom’s favorites, so late afternoon we ordered burgers, steak fries, onion rings, and malts from Choo Choo Grill.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Choo Choo Grill, Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Grill in on Plainfield just off the intersection with Leonard and sits right along the train tracks. It is open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturdays and serves breakfast and lunch options. Choo Choo Grill has been here since 1946 and is family-run; the names of some of breakfast plates reflect their historic clientele. “The building was built in 1924 as the yard office for Shipman Coal Company.” The space is very small so it is often hard to find a seat inside. The family is friendly, greeting those they know by name. I would say this is one of Mom’s favorite places because her dad worked for the railroad, but it might just be the food. Perhaps the words on the door say it all, “The best burgers on earth or anywhere else.”

Photo ©Jean Janssen Friendly staff and patrons at the Choo Choo Grill in Grand Rapids, MIchigan

Still hoping they bring back the direct flights to Grand Rapids soon. The Chicago O’Hare Airport was packed and I practically had to run to make my connection. I was going from a gate in the F concourse in terminal 2 to a gate in the C concourse in terminal 1. This hike includes transferring to C through the tunnel under the tarmac. Fortunately my flight from Grand Rapids landed early. Everyone is clearly traveling again (at least in the U.S.A.). There were so many people, it was hard to move through the terminals. I did discover a cool map on the United App which showed the map on how travel from one gate to another. Another feature on the app was to show luggage status. Despite the tight connection, I was able to see when the luggage made it and even when it was about to appear on the carousel in Houston.

Mom took this picture of me just before I went into the Grand Rapids Airport on departure day.

Posted in domestic travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Most Important Trip of the Year: A Visit with Mom in Michigan

Photo ©Jean Janssen. This is what utter bliss looks like. My arrival at the Grand Rapids airport for my first visit with mom in a year and a half

This is the most important trip I will make all year. I haven’t see my mom in a year and half as COVID-19 raged and I isolated in Texas and she in Michigan. In the past year and a half, I have had to cancel more trips to Michigan than I care to count. The last cancellation was in April when I planned to visit with her on her birthday, but we had to move out of our home instead because of extensive damage caused by Texas Freeze Uri.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Found Cottage in Hudsonville, Michigan

Well I made it anyway. And what a day to travel. TSA screened over 2 million people at airport security checkpoints. It was the first time topping 2 million since the start of the pandemic. The same day a disgruntled Delta Employee threatened to take down a plane en route from Los Angeles to Atlanta before being subdued by an off-duty pilot and fellow passengers. Fortunately I was on a different route, traveling Houston to Chicago and Chicago to Grand Rapids on United. The direct flights are still unavailable, although the demand is clearly there. Lots of my fellow passengers and even one of the on-duty flight attendants was making the trip from Houston to GR.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Mom started her day with hot chocolate at The Cherie Inn.

At my mom’s age, a year and a half can make a major difference. With visits from all three of her children within the last month, her spirits have definitely picked up. After my arrival, mom and I didn’t wait long before getting started with errands she needed help with. We were out the door the next morning to shop for heavy items that are hard for her to lift. We also went to a favorite Polish Meat Market, Lewandoski’s, on the city’s west side. They have cleared the shelves of their stock of staples, but added a bitcoin machine.

The placement of the machine shocked me. I asked the young man who helped me at this family-run business about the machine and he said that the company approached them. The supplier’s research showed that this was an area of town where potential investment was likely. The meat market gets a percentage. When I asked him if it had been successful, his answer was “surprisingly, yes”. He said there was a lot of traffic with the machine and that several members of the staff had also invested. Mom and I chose to invest in bacon, pork chops, and hamburger instead.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Mom with our purchases at Lewandoski’s Market in Grand Rapids, Michigan

We also went to The Bridge Street Market, an upscale version of the Meijer’s grocery stores that dominate the city. (It is a lot like the Central Markets are to the HEB grocery chain at home in Houston.) This market caters to young, and often single, shoppers. There are lots of unique meals for one person, plenty of vegan options, and items like my beloved Topo Chico (highly carbonated bottled water from Mexico). I even spotted another reminder from home-selections from The Texas Tamale Company.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted at the Bridge Street Market in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The Bridge Street Market has no staffed checkout lanes. You have to go the automated route. What I really need is a picture of mom and I trying to navigate the unfamiliar machine. Near the end, we were rescued by the employee manning the coffee bar. It was probably painful for him to watch us try to check out. Mom has come several times. The store was on a free bus route that was eliminated with the onset of the pandemic. I should have known when she said she wanted to bag the items that I was being set up. Mom has a way of getting people to help her and probably has always found a helpful soul to assist her through the process.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Cherie Inn in Grand Rapids Michigan’s Fairmont Square. Note the original tin ceilings

Of course, we had to be fortified for all this shopping, so we had started the day at The Cherie Inn for breakfast. Having opened its doors in 1924, the establishment claims to be the longest-running restaurant in the city. “It is housed in a 100 year old building featuring the original tin ceilings, vintage art and Stickley furniture of Grand Rapids dating back to the 1940’s. [sic]” The variety of egg Benedict options got my attention-I went with the crab cake Benedict-but mom chose the lumberperson breakfast. You know, like ordering the kitchen sink. She started with a hot chocolate. Mom hasn’t gotten out yet much and wanted to take advantage of going out for a meal.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Mom went for the full lumberperson’s breakfast at The Cherie Inn.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. My more modest Crab Cake Benedict at The Cherie Inn.

The Cherie Inn sits in a charming area of the East side where Cherry Street and Diamond Ave cross, just up the street from my mom’s childhood home where she currently lives. The brick buildings house cute restaurants, shops, and bars. Just across the street is the Pickwick Tavern which famously only accepts cash; this dark, neighborhood bar and its staff have been described as having an “ornery charm”. Unfortunately a lot of the buildings have gone empty, most likely from the fallout from COVID. I am hoping for a revitalization of the area. It was helpful, but surprisingly disappointing, that we easily found a parking place. I was encouraged that the Cherie Inn is currently investing in facade of their building.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Looking out at the brick facades of the buildings in Fairmont Square from the Cherie Inn, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Another morning called for a visit to Van’s Pastry Shop on Fulton on the city’s north side just down the street from the Fulton Farmer’s Market (always crowded and worth a visit). I was disappointed to hear that the bakery had been sold after being in the same Dutch family for generations. Fortunately, it was sold to some of the long-time employees who have the recipes and the fabulous cookie jar collection that lines the wall. Everyone in our family has their favorites. My uncle loves the lunch sticks, mom the cherry muffins; Emma, Rocky, and I like the cherry turnovers; and I also have a soft spot for the fat balls with raisins. The employees know my sister and I, especially Emma. She was in a few weeks ago and they knew she was headed back to Texas when she ordered and stocked up on cherry turnovers.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Van’s Pastry Shop on Fulton in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Today was the clothing and accessories shopping day. We are going to drive to a couple of my favorite stores in the the area. En route we stopped for a lunch of fried lake perch (much preferred to ocean perch). This is a favorite in the area, but not as easy to find on the menu as it once was. We loved the perch at Tillman’s Bar on Monroe, but sadly the bar has closed its doors. We ended up stopping at The Grand Rapids Fishery, which ironically is in Wyoming, Michigan not Grand Rapids. Appropriately, the sign above the door only says “The Fishery”.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fresh seafood at The (Grand Rapids) Fishery. The offerings were different from what I find at home along the Gulf Coast.

What we didn’t know was that is was $2 Tuesday and all lunch baskets were $2 off. The place was packed. Inside it is really just a fish market-no tables-but the place was filled with a steady steam of customers. The smart ones knew the drill and had called ahead. When you order, they just pull your fish out of the case and it goes in the line to be fried. There were a few tables outside, so mom and I enjoyed our fish there. (Perhaps the tables were inside pre-COVID?) It was obviously very fresh, but unfortunately a little overcooked. This was the only place we have been that still had a sign requiring patrons to wear a mask. There was no enforcement of the rule though and a few customers were without one.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Found Cottage, Hudsonville, Michigan

Our first post lunch stop was The Found Cottage. Emma “found the cottage” a few years ago when it was new and we have watched it change over the years. For one thing, the checkout is in its third location. I mostly buy home decor items here. Emma has always added a few clothing items and gifts. The current format is in transition. The space has expanded and they have added several stalls where outside vendors can show their things. The concept must be working; new stalls are currently under construction. Normally I find more items I am interested in. The Found Cottage is on Chicago Drive in Hudsonville, Michigan.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Found Cottage in Hudsonville, Michigan

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Found Cottage in Hudsonville, Michigan

From there it was on to Holland, Michigan to Jean Marie’s; the chain is celebrating their 6th year in business. Mom actually read about the store shortly after they opened their new branch in Grand Haven Michigan, a charming beach town along the lake not far from Grand Rapids. One year when I was a child our families rented a lodge in Grand Haven for a family reunion. I remember the stay fondly, but my brother says no more renting lodging that bills itself as having “rustic charm of a by-gone era”. We still make day trips to Grand Haven on most of our extended stays in GR.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Grand Haven State Park, Grand Haven, Michigan, May 2019

The Grand Haven Jean Marie’s is still my favorite, maybe because I went there first, but most likely because the street it sits on and the store itself is so charming. I noticed that this #2 location was not listed on the website so I don’t know its status. It is smaller than the original on Chicago Drive in Holland.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Jean Marie’s, Chicago Ave., Holland, Michigan. The last time we were there was just before Halloween in October 2019.

Today I wanted to go to a close location with a larger selection. I did very well there, enjoying the “fill your tote bag at a discount” anniversary promotion. Mom gravitates to the jewelry. They even told us about an additional location that had opened in November in Wyoming, Michigan and mom and I drove by there on the way back to Grand Rapids. Obviously when you live in Houston driving to these various stops didn’t feel that far to me. Jean Marie’s is promoting their app with daily live shows, so I guess I will need to check that out too. All their stores offer a wide range of sizes, XS-3XL. I am not the only one who likes Jean Marie’s. The store has been voted the favorite Women’s clothing store in Holland 5 years running and the store is only 6 years old.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Mom and Emma on a previous shopping trip to Grand Haven, Michigan. As evidenced by the striped bags, there was a stop at Jean Marie’s. The matching “Love” Brighton bags were a gift from Natasha. May 2018

More Michigan adventures to come…


Posted in domestic travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Stop in Gettysburg on the way Home

Photo ©Jean Janssen Cyclorama, Gettysburg National Military Park

We are checking out of the Hershey Lodge today and driving to Gettysburg, PA on the way to Baltimore. Our morning began with packing and then the farewell wedding breakfast. It was one last chance to see the family and visit with the couple. They are off to Jamaica tomorrow. It is tough to find a safe honeymoon location at a destination that is open to American/foreign visitors. As US citizens, we are fortunate to have ready access to vaccines. Other countries are not so lucky and are far behind us in vaccination rates and control of Covid-19. Even within the US, things are different. A cabbie a week ago told me he had been driving lots of DC and New York visitors in from the airport. They were visiting Houston since things are so “open”.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Gettysburg National Military Park Pennsylvania

When we knew we were making this wedding trip, I took a look at what was in the area knowing we would have some free time. We decided to fly out early Monday morning rather than leave on Sunday and miss the breakfast. This way we have time for an afternoon outing. Knowing we would be in the area, the two things that immediately caught my attention were a trip to Amish Country and Gettysburg. Today we are seeing my first choice, Gettysburg.

Chapel at the Lutheran Cemetery, Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg PA

Boris had already arranged a tour before we left and we found that several other wedding guests had visited the historic site on this trip before the wedding. All were impressed with their visit and highly recommended a tour. Gettysburg is about halfway to the airport car rental drop off from Hershey.

Gettysburg PA

Gettysburg PA

We first took a tour through the town of Gettysburg itself. It is very charming and historic with nice inns, bed and breakfasts, and dining spots. I loved the landscape and buildings connected with the Lutheran Seminary. We even saw a few log cabins in town. We came in York Road through town, along Seminary Ridge, past Gettysburg College and back out York. We were actually covering part of the battlefield; I just didn’t know it. Two of the significant tour sites are in town, the Gettysburg Train Station and David Willis’ House.

Lutheran Seminary at Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg PA

I would have liked to eat in town, but Boris had his eye on a Perkins we saw when we got off the freeway, so we headed back out York. There were lots of places to grab something to eat at the York exit. It was only a short distance to make the trip into town and out again so it really wasn’t out of the way to return to the Perkins and then use Highway 15 to go to the Visitors’ Center. We had also been warned that there were ticks in the field so I wanted to get some spray for my legs before we crossed the battlefields. After lunch and the bug spray stop, we went around Highway 15 to Baltimore Pike, the recommended exit to reach the Visitors Center.

Log Cabin, Gettysburg, PA

Photo ©Jean Janssen Tickets and complimentary brochure from Gettysburg National Military Park

We went inside, checked in, toured the museum, saw the film, and visited the cyclorama. The complex is part of Gettysburg National Military Park and is run by the National Park Service. I knew the private tour came at a fee, but I was shocked we had to buy tickets to enter the other areas of the building. I have never paid for the offerings for sites managed by the National Park Service. Adults cost $15, so we paid $30 plus they asked us to make a donation to the foundation. It would make it pretty expensive for a family. With all the online resources available and if you are on a budget, I would recommend you do some web research, check out the CNN Lincoln series that came out this summer, and pick up one of the free park guides available at the welcome center for background and skip the cost of the building exhibits. (I am sure Boris will disagree.) There is a nice gift shop with more detailed guides; that might be a better investment. As you will read later, a private or bus tour is definitely worth the price of the ticket. I admit I love history and do read a lot, but there was no new information in the twenty-minute film.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Inside the Visitors Center, Gettysburg National Military Park

A bit of background on the cyclorama from the National Park Service: “Cycloramas were a very popular form of entertainment in the late 1800s, both in America and Europe. These massive, oil-on-canvas paintings were displayed in special auditoriums and enhanced with landscaped foregrounds sometimes featuring trees, grasses, fences and even life-sized figures. The result was a three-dimensional effect that surrounded viewers who stood on a central platform, literally placing them in the center of the great historic scene. Most cycloramas depicted dramatic events such as great battles, religious epics, or scenes from great works of literature. Hundreds were painted and exhibited in Europe and America during the 1800s, yet most were lost or destroyed as their popularity died out with the introduction of a more entertaining art form, motion pictures.”

Photo ©Jean Janssen Cyclorama, Gettysburg National Military Park

The Gettysburg cyclorama depicts the third and final day of fighting at Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. The painting was completed in one year by a team led by French artist Paul who interviewed many veterans of the battle. It opened for public viewing in Chicago in 1883, 20 years after the battle took place. It has been moved several times and and was purchased by the National Park Service in the late 1940s. The painting was installed in the newly constructed park visitor center in 1962 where it underwent a massive restoration. The painting underwent another restoration, this time at a cost of 13 million, beginning in 2003 and was rededicated in its own theater at its current location in 2008.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Cyclorama, Gettysburg National Military Park

After you leave the theater where the film is shown, you take escalators up to view the painting from a multi-level platform. The platform allows you to move around and get a full 360 degree view. There is a light and sound show that accompanies the narration. Particularly impressive are the artifacts and props at the bottom of the display which often make it hard to distinguish the edge of the painting where art blends with reality.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Our Foundation Guide at Gettysburg

After our interior visit, we met our guide Mike for a two-hour private guided tour of the battlefields. Mike will drive our car and make multiple stops along the way as well as give us background information as we are driving around the complex and the city of Gettysburg. The tour roughly follows the battles which occurred over a three-day period, July 1-3, 1863. At times we did a bit of backtracking to make it work. He started out by stopping at Cemetery Ridge, near the Visitors Center. George Meade who led the Union forces had a reputation for moving troops slowing. On this occasion Union Troops surprised Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee by arriving at the area first and establishing the most strategic stronghold at Cemetery Hill.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Cemetery Hill Gettysburg National Military Park

Up to this point in the war, it was Lee who most often found victory in the battles in the southern Confederate States. He was ready to push forward and gain a significant military victory on northern soil. Gettysburg was not a random location; it was the crossroads of several major roads. Union troops won morning skirmishes on July 1, but afternoon fighting saw the Union troops defeated and retreating through Gettysburg to Cemetery and Culps Hills.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Gettysburg National Military Park

One of the fascinating and impressive things about the military park is that they have worked hard to present the buildings and landscape as it appeared in 1863. This was only possible because shortly after the battles the citizens of Gettysburg, appreciating the significance of these events, began buying up the land. Veterans returned to tell their stories and join in the preservation efforts. Eventually, the area was controlled by the War Department and later the National Parks Service under the US Department of the Interior. Even today, they continue to buy up property and restore fencing and farm buildings to their 1863 look. Sometimes that even means demolishing modern improvements.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Gettysburg National Military Park

Photo ©Jean Janssen Gettysburg National Military Park

I know a lot about history, but not military history. Boris really let me take the lead on questions. He has visited Gettysburg many times and knows just about everything there is know about American (and most international) military history. (and he thought Mike was doing a great job…) Having the background and strategic thinking about the staging of the battles and well as the reminders of conditions in the 1860s provided by Mike really put the history in a whole new light. At one point he stopped and pointed out the types of cannons and artillery used. When I think cannons, I think cannon balls. That is what the bronze ones fired, but we saw more of the ridged type cannons which utilized three different types of shot depending on the distance and conditions. Fascinating. Even seeing the mechanisms used to move the cannons put everything in a new light. When he made a reference to the type of shot used at the end of the third day and I got it, everything came all together. As you have probably figured out by now. I loved the tour. It was worth every penny of the $75 cost.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Boris stands beside a Confederate cannon as he looks toward the Union position at Gettysburg National Military Park

Photo ©Jean Janssen The markings on this cannon with its ridged interior tell us the the cannon could be used for three different types of shot, its manufacturer, the year it was manufactured-1862, and its weight. Gettysburg National Military Park

On July 2, 1863, Lee attacked the Union forces on multiple fronts. By this point, both armies were almost at full strength. The attempt was made to squeeze the Union troops. Federal political appointee Sickles, who had no military experience, complained of rough terrain and failed to follow Meade’s order. Sickles pulled the line out too far leaving open portions of the ridge. During the fighting Sickles was injured and returned to Washington to tell his side of the story to President Lincoln who visited his bedside. Sickles’ version that he was the mastermind behind Union success was accepted by many, perverting military history at the time.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The location of the North Carolina Memorial is where the Confederate army positioned itself in the morning hours of July 2, 1863.

One of the benefits of taking a private tour was that at the beginning Mike asked if there was anything we wanted him to particularly focus on. The tour is usually an outline of the three days that made up the Battle of Gettysburg. I asked Mike if people often make special requests. He mentioned that one guest wanted to focus specifically on the three days of fighting around Culps Hill. Boris told him that he had 4 uncles that had served and we wanted to know where the Texas regiments would have been concentrated. I also mentioned that I had a Southern father (Texas) and a Union mother (Michigan) and he told me there was a place where the two collided. When we got to the southern end where the Texas regiments were lined up, Mike took a picture of us by the Texas monument. In the photo, we are both showing the effects of the 95 degree (Fahrenheit) temperature.

I learned that at this time in our history, regiments were recruited from geographic areas and kept together. While their leadership might change, the men fighting together were neighbors and family, often multiple generations of the same family. They already had a bond. Fighting together brought them even closer.

Photo ©Jean Janssen View of Devil’s Den from Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park

Photo ©Jean Janssen Little Round Top, Gettysburg National Military Park

Still focused on day 2, we drove by the Peach Orchard (there is still an orchard there), the Wheatfield, and up the ridge on Little Round Top. This is where Sickles’ line was out too far. The terrain varies so much here, even though it is a relatively short distance between fields of battle. Fighting here stopped between 5 and 6 pm on day two. With no daylights saving time, it would have been dark by 8 pm. Little Round Top was also the spot where Michigan regiments retreated allowing the Texans to come in. Boris and I nominated Mike to be the one to tell my mom that particular piece of information.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Gettysburg National Military Park

Union Troops had lost ground on July 2, but had held. Confederate Troops had even made it onto Culps Hill and a Georgia regiment had almost broken the line along Cemetery Ridge. Lee was ready to squeeze the Union troops, encouraged by the day’s progress. Because the flanks had held, Meade was determined to stay and fight.

Photo ©Jean Janssen Facing the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg National Military Park

When the tour focused on day 3, July 3, 1863, that early education on artillery by Mike came in helpful. Southern states had a different economy based on agriculture with slave labor. They had fewer men of fighting age. They also didn’t have the factories and manufacturing capacities of the northern states. Their artillery was often faulty. The 12,000-man Pickett’s charge would take place this day, but not before the field was partially cleared by cannon fire. The field was thick with smoke. Meade ordered some of the cannons rested and fitted with artillery for close contact. With no long-range visibility, this reduction in cannon fire was interpreted by Lee as success in damaging Union cannons. Actually, Confederate shot was faulty. The charge against the Union center was unsuccessful. On July 4, the Confederate army retreated, Lee immediately accepting full blame for the campaign’s failure.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The final field of battle, location of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 Gettysburg National Military Park

As stated in the park brochure, “[more] men fell during the Battle of Gettysburg than in any other battle on American soil before or since…Total casualties…for the three days of fighting were 23,000 for the Union army and as many as 28,000 for the confederate [sic] army.” It is important to note that casualties include killed, wounded, captured, or missing men. There were not over 50,000 dead at Gettysburg as is often mistakenly stated. However the number of dead was staggering; the Gettysburg community was left to deal with the fields littered with bodies and wounded in almost every building in the community.

Local Gettysburg Attorney David Willis was called upon to buy land for a proper burial ground. The cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863. The principal speaker was Edward Everett. He was the draw that day and he spoke for over two hours. However, many will not even remember that Everett spoke or what he said. What is truly remembered in American history are the “few appropriate remarks” made by President Lincoln. Known now as the Gettysburg address, many students and lovers of history can recite his remarks from memory.

Lutheran Seminary, Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg PA

It was a fabulous tour. We paid for 2 hours; Mike was with us for 2 hours and 45 minutes. As a Foundation-not a federal-employee, he was able to accept tips. Mike had gotten wonderful training. Leaving Gettysburg, we headed back to the Baltimore car rental center and turned in the car. It was much easier than the pick up. We took an Uber to the hotel where we had dinner. The hotel chains are still struggling to get enough employees as tourism picks up. Morning flight back to Houston. Wonderful end to a wonderful trip.


Posted in domestic travel, road trip | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Cake in the Chocolate Ballroom

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Today is our first full day in Pennsylvania. The wedding is at 2 pm and the dress is cocktail attire, so Natasha needs some time for grooming. We got up early so we could head out a see a little bit of rural PA before it was time to get ready.

Lancaster, PA

Our initial plan was breakfast and roaming around in Lancaster County, primarily know as Amish Country. After doing some online research, we decided we needed better planning and more time, so we have postponed that outing. The groom has just taken a position in Lancaster and told us where he and his bride want to move (the half-way point), so we thought as good friends we should explore those locations.

Lancaster County, PA

We set out for Lancaster PA and were rewarded for our early arrival by actually catching a glimpse (but not a picture) of an Amish horse and buggy in town. I suspect the driver was getting his errands done but the town was fully awake and activity picked up. Lancaster’s downtown is full of historic buildings and I was particularly struck by the wonderful row houses that line the street.

We circled by the Soldiers and Sailors Monument after our downtown tour. It stands in Penn Square at the intersection of King and Queen Streets. This is the site off an old Lancaster courthouse where the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster between the British and Iroquois was signed. It is also “the exact spot where the Second Continental Congress met during the American Revolutionary War on September 27, 1777.”

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in downtown Lancaster PA.

Before leaving the city we stopped at the historic train station. Although there has been a train station in Lancaster since 1834, the current Amtrak station was built in 1929. It is the second busiest train station in the state of Pennsylvania. Like the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the Lancaster station is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Amtrak Station in Lancaster, PA

Nothing was really open yet and we didn’t see a brunch location that we were both excited about. As a result, we took the Lititz Pike out of town in the hope that the road would lead us to Lititz where the new couple-whose wedding we are in PA for-plan to move. It was a very pretty two-lane drive pass wonderful farmhouses, barns, and silos. When I had searched for breakfast locations in Lancaster the night before, a couple of Lititz locations had popped up so I was pretty confident we would find something there.

Photo ©Jean Janssen The Tomato Pie Cafe in Lititz, PA

Right along the road was the Tomato Pie Cafe in a wonderful old home with an outdoor porch and courtyard seating. After parking in the lot for the Wilbur Chocolate Store, we walked across the train tracks to the cafe. After a short wait, we were seated inside. I love sitting outside; Boris does not.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. All the servers wear hats at the Tomato Pie Cafe in Lititz, PA. Even one of the patrons got into the spirit on this Saturday morning.

The cafe had an interesting menu, but we had to ask the server about the namesake tomato pie. They won’t disclose the recipe- not even to the servers-but it tastes like a quiche with tomatoes. As the server suggested, we got a small one as a starter to try it. It had a fabulous pastry pie crust and was the best thing we ate that morning.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Tomato Pie Cafe, Lititz PA

The servers all wear hats and the hostess reflected a turn of the century feel. The rooms of the old home are used as the interior serving areas. The tiny bathrooms reflect the feel of the older home. Boris had a sausage and egg breakfast to follow the tomato pie. I tried the seasonal special, blueberry pancakes with a lemon curd glaze. Yummy! I also tried the seasonal strawberry mint lemonade, also good. I could have gone for the coconut shake as well, but not after a tomato pie starter.

©Jean Janssen Lititz, PA

After lunch we crossed the street to the city park complete with fountain and gazebo. The park is next to the old train station, which serves as the town’s welcome center. It is an exceptionally charming city. In 2013, Budget Travel named Lititz “America’s Coolest Small Town”. It is only 8 miles north of Lancaster City and is also located in Lancaster County. While for some it may be a bedroom community for the city, it is also the home to major businesses like Johnson & Johnson.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Lititz was named in 1756 and incorporated in 1888. The Lititz Borough, which covers an area of 2.3 square miles, has a population of less than 10,000 residents. Next to the train station is a wonderful Rolex Clock presented to the city on the 250th anniversary of the city’s naming. “Lititz was founded by members of the Moravian Church in 1756 and was named after a castle in Bohemia…For a century, only Moravians were permitted to live in Lititz. Until the middle of the 19th century, only members of the congregation could own houses; others were required to lease.”

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Having parked in their lot, we thought we should at least make a stop in the Wilbur Chocolate Store. The Wilbur Chocolate Company is headquartered in Lititz. It was founded in Philadelphia in 1865 by Henry Wilbur and Samuel Croft. For 125 years, production of most of the Wilbur Chocolate products was in Lititz at their historic factory located along the train track. The factory was closed in 2016 and it 2018 the building was impressively converted in condos. There is also a market and shops on the ground floor.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Interestingly, as we are here to celebrate in Hershey, Wilbur Chocolate’s most popular product is the Wilbur Bud. It was introduced in 1893, 14 years before the Hershey’s Kiss, which looks a lot like it. However, the Bud is not individually wrapped and has the word Wilbur on the bottom of the chocolate. The companies are headquartered only 20 miles apart.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Our drive back to Hershey was a beautiful one through roads canopied with trees and beside picturesque farmland. We were glad we had a full breakfast. Restaurants at the Lodge transition at 11:30 am and if you wanted to eat then (which is what most of the wedding guests wanted to do before the 2:00 pm wedding) you were out of luck. We made it to the ceremony at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. It was very touching. Both bride and groom teared up during their vows. After sentimental vows, the end featured a joyful kiss which started with a chaste version, went on to a passionate one, and was followed by the much shorter bride pulling down the groom for another. I counted three, but the mother of the groom said there were at least five. Boris said she was the happiest bride he had ever seen.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

After the ceremony we returned to the Lodge for the reception in the various rooms which make up the Chocolate Ballroom. About now you might be wondering if I was ever going to get to tying in the name of this post. We started with a cocktails and appetizers and later the wall separated to reveal the dance floor and tables for a seated dinner. The groom told us the night before that theirs was the first post-Covid wedding the Hershey Lodge was hosting. The week earlier and there would have been no dancing.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The cake was already struggling as we entered the ballroom.

There were so many wonderful moments at the reception. Seeing friends we had been isolated from during COVID, seeing the joy of the couple and their family and friends, and enjoying a really nice meal. The highlight for me was the “Grand March”, a tradition that was part of every wedding I went to as a child but which I rarely see any more. My paternal grandparents were from large German families in central Texas. You simply didn’t have a wedding without a grand march.

traditional wedding march song

“A Grand March is a procession that opens a formal dance or a wedding dance. Although its origins are not quite clear, Texas Czechs have embraced the tradition for generations. While being led by an experienced couple, this dance promenades participants in various formations. At weddings, the dance symbolizes the bride and groom beginning their new life together with family and friends.” THE GRAND MARCH: A CZECH AND GERMAN INSTITUTION Texas Polka News.

Photo ©Jean Janssen A little bit lower now

The groomer’s maternal grandparents led the march, a position of great honor. The groom is from a Czech family. His grandparents were competitive polka dancers in their earlier years. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to dance with his grandfather later in the evening.

Photo ©Jean Janssen. Using the Force to hold up the cake.

From my seat one of the things that occupied my time during the reception was the cake which was already struggling when we entered the ballroom. Throughout the reception, it continued to tilt. We all willed the couple to cut the cake. At one point, the groom’s mother joked that it was intentional as they had hoped to see the leaning tower of Pisa on an Italian honeymoon. Finally it was cut and enjoyed by the guests, not without the staff trying to figure out how to do it without a disaster. The couple put their hands out, appearing afraid to cut it for fear it would fall on them. It was taken to the back, outside of the guests’ view. I texted Rocky the picture. Ever the Star Wars fan, Rocky’s reply was “Oh good, they are using the Force.”

Photo ©Jean Janssen. The cake in the Chocolate Ballroom.

After the reception, we stopped at the lobby bar and were rewarded with a visit with the couple and the groom’s story of how they met. After a full day, it was off to bed before the farewell breakfast in the morning and our visit to Gettysburg.


Posted in domestic travel, road trip | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Photo ©Jean Janssen

Natasha is vaccinated and ready to travel. In the last two weeks, I have visited Washington DC, the Mouse in Orlando, Florida, and made stops in Maryland and Pennsylvania enroute to a wedding in Hershey, PA. I am off to Michigan in a couple of days to visit my mom who I haven’t seen in a year and a half; in other words, it is the most important trip of the year.

Over 60% of all adult Americans have now been vaccinated for COVID-19. Most of the remaining group are not limited by access or availability, but desire. This is definitely the harder part of reaching herd immunity, convincing those that are skeptical to get vaccinated.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Vaccinated or not, Americans are on the move if the airports are any indication. Our flight to Baltimore (BWI) was completely full (as were all the other flights I took in the last few weeks) and the TSA security check line was the longest I have ever seen in that terminal; it snaked around the IAH terminal B lobby.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

There was another wait to grab a quick breakfast. Most fast food establishments find it difficult to find workers when government unemployment benefits exceed what their take-home salary would be. We made it to the gate in time and boarded our 2 and 2 seat plane for the 3 hours and 15 minute flight.

Photo @ Jean Janssen

We used carryon bags, so no waiting for luggage in Baltimore, but we did have to wait quite a while for the rental car shuttle. At least one bus passed us by, already full from other airport pickup stops. The rental car terminal was a nightmare. We had prepaid for a rental through Dollar. Their office was completely closed. Thrifty and Dollar customers were diverted to the Hertz line. There was at least 70-100 people in front of us and the line was exceptionally slow with only two check-in counters open (again, staff shortages).

Photo ©Jean Janssen

After 45 minutes in line when we had barely moved, I contacted American Express and opened a claim on the prepaid charge through I had been unable to reach them and Dollar online or via telephone. Boris went over to AVIS and got us a mid-sized car for slightly more money.

By the time we got on the road, 2 1/2 hours after our plane landed, it was after 4 pm on a Friday heading into rush hour traffic. Ironically, the GPS took us into downtown Baltimore rather than around. We later met another couple at the wedding that had the same thing happen to them. So I can check off a tour of downtown Baltimore and the many lane changes we had to navigate.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

After the downtown detour, it was pretty smooth driving all the way to Hershey, PA. Signage to the Hershey Lodge, where the wedding reception and additional gatherings are taking place, is not the best. We ended up at the Grill and had to drive around the side to find the lobby of this sprawling complex of hotel rooms, motel rooms, convention center, indoor water park, and pools. The convention center features two huge ballrooms that can be broken down into smaller meeting spaces in addition to the smaller fixed conference spaces.

Photo ©Jean Janssen

Staying at the Hershey Lodge is not cheap. Even with our wedding discount, our king-size bed room was $259 a night. It was a large room, but with no view. Other than the chocolate-scented toiletries and the faded Hershey Kiss wallpaper in the bathroom, there was nothing to distinguish it from a standard room. Definitely overpriced. You do get a Hershey chocolate bar for each member of your party staying the room, pool/waterpark access, and free tickets to the Hershey Gardens, but I have to believe that other local hotels are a better deal. I think discount tickets to the amusement park are also available. We did see a trolley shuttle from the elegant Hershey Hotel (not to be confused with the Lodge), but no shuttle from the Lodge. The Lodge is on the other side of the freeway and not adjacent to the other Hershey attractions.

Photo©Jean Janssen. I would have loved to have stayed at Hotel Hershey, but rates were more than 2x those at the Lodge and it was not as convenient for the wedding events. It was more fun to stay where everyone else was.

Our first night, we joined other guests that had come from out of town/state at a reception hosted by the families. I had the opportunity to spend some time with the bride who I had only met briefly before. The groom is particularly special to Boris and I and his family are dear friends. Navigating the complex was not easy and a staff member took pity on us and walked us over. We learned later that we were not the only ones he had to do that for. We had to walk through one of the convention halls and by the ballroom where an Irish Dance Competition was taking place. The girls were accomplished athletes and wore elaborate modest costumes, and the largest, tallest wigs I have ever seen. And remember, I am from Texas where big hair is a thing. One mother told us she spent $1,600 for a used dress for her daughter.

Tomorrow is the early afternoon wedding so we won’t have a lot of free time. We might try going to Amish Country in nearby Lancaster County, PA. We will see how early we get up.

–Natasha is back…

Posted in domestic travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mother’s Day in the Texas Hill Country During COVID-19


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bankersmith TX dancehall, complete with chickens

We started Mother’s Day with another wonderful morning at Emma’s Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  I got up early and walked into the kitchen to spot deer just outside the window.  It just gave me a warm feeling inside.  After everyone was up, we spent time outside; with each outing Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Maggie’s dog) wanders just a bit farther from the barndamium.  We all shared in the breakfast-making duties.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Morning deer as seen through the kitchen window (and screen) at the J&J Crossing Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.

The shops open up at 11am on Sundays and we are heading back into Fredericksburg then.  Mass wasn’t an option today, since large group activities are still restricted due to the virus.  Odd since everyone walks around Fredericksburg with no mask on; capacities in the buildings are limited to 25%.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Original hospital for the German community in Fredericksburg, Texas. Now a restaurant and gift store.

There are less people walking around town today.  I suspect many made a day trip into Fredericksburg yesterday and today are at home enjoying Mother’s Day with their families.  The restaurants did have a lot of people celebrating with lunch/brunch.  We found a wonderful store with outdoor apparel and great walking shoes; I bought four pairs.  Sydney, the young saleswoman at Parts Unknown, was very helpful.  She is graduating from high school at the end of this month.  Her class is small enough that they will actually be able to hold a graduation ceremony, although the number of people she can invite is limited to two.  She is one of the lucky ones; most graduation ceremonies can’t take place this spring due to large group restrictions in place due to COVID-19.

Another favorite shop was the Rustic Star, a home accessories store.  They had wonderful woven baskets, very colorful.  They also had high end artificial floral items and great examples of the table arrangements you could make with them.  You can see them on their Facebook page.  I already have the trays they were using, so I got some of the flowers and greenery to make arrangements for my house.  It will be a fun project while my outside activities remain limited.  The Rustic Star was the only shop we went into that required masks-good for them.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. When not drinking the Texas wines, Maggie enjoyed a Lone Star, the National Beer of Texas and her grandfather’s favorite.

At some point, I put on a pair of my new walking shoes.  I didn’t buy that much in town, but we did a lot of looking and covered a lot of ground.  We ended our time in Fredericksburg back at the Grape Creek Tasting Room.  I passed on another tasting-Emma gets two free ones each day.  Emma and Maggie enjoyed another round and we bought some more wine to take home with us.  Maggie even joined their club.  She can get shipments in Washington, D.C. where she goes to school.  Not every state allows wine shipments.


If Fred could wear a mask to protect against the spread of COVID-19, then so could Natasha.

Afterwards, I drove back to the ranch giving another wave to masked Fred.  Our hope was to stop for a late lunch at Alamo Springs and try one of their famous burgers.  Unfortunately it was 3:35 (most of the shops in town close at 3 pm on Sunday), and Alamo Springs had closed at 2 pm.  Bummer.  They had lots of outside tables.  Emma said this was new.  Don’t know if it is to accommodate larger crowds or in response to the spacing requirements that have come out of social distancing.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dawn and dusk were the best times to spot deer on the J&J Crossing Ranch.

Back at the ranch, Emma and I decided to spend some time outside.  Even though today is warmer, the breeze at the higher elevation where the barndamium is located means it was cool and comfortable on the porch.  Eventually, we decided it was a good day for a nap.  It is Mother’s Day after all and Rocky would want me to enjoy a nap if I had the chance.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Interior of the Dancehall at Bankersmith TX

They woke me up in time to go to Bankersmith, TX for the drive-in movie.  As a child, I went to drive-in movies at a theater in my hometown of Victoria, Texas.  Usually priced by car, the five of us would pack into the station wagon with food and drinks my mom had prepared for us.  We lived modestly and even though there was a concession stand, it was more economical to bring your own snacks.  It was a double feature.  You put a speaker on your car window.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The backyard at Bankersmith TX

These theaters had two screens, so you parked in the direction of the movie you wanted to see.  My daddy loved Westerns, musicals and Disney movies, so that is usually what we saw.  More than once my brother was caught watching the movie playing from the other direction.  Didn’t matter that he couldn’t hear what was being said; it was the pictures he was interested in.  I’ll say no more.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The “drive-in” movie in Bankersmith TX.

The “drive-in” at Bankersmith was a homemade set-up.  A frame of  2x4s was covered in a sheet and secured atop a metal trailer.  Bingo, a screen.  None of this inflatable stuff.  You parked in their parking lot, packed as close together as possible.  If you had a hatch-back or pick-up, you backed in and sat in the back or the bed.  Since we were in a sedan, we had to get there early for a front row “seat”.  No worries-there is free music, games, a bar, and food to keep us happy until the movie begins.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The ice house at Bankersmith TX.

Bankersmith TX is right on Old Hwy 9, the first paved road between Comfort and Fredericksburg.  The J&J Crossing Ranch is also on Hwy 9, so we were very close.   The ice house (known as Bankersmith TX) is located in Bankersmith, Texas,  a ghost town near the border of Kendall and Gillespie Counties.  The town was founded 1913 when a rail stop was secured at this location.  The town was named for Temple Smith, the banker who financed the railroad.  (He was known locally as-yes, you got it- Banker Smith.)  In the early 1940s the railroad abandoned this section of the rail line.  The town reached its peak population of 50 in the 1920s when there was a store, dancehall, lumberyard, and a post office.


Goat Yoga at Bankersmith. Photo curtesy of Bankersmith TX.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The dancehall at Bankersmith TX.

I love the logo for the ice house and dance hall, Bankersmith TX, population 0.  I need one of those t-shirts.  After securing our prime location for the drive-in movie (we had stopped in earlier in the day and asked about what time to arrive), we went into the field behind the ice house.   The movie starts at 8:20 and it was recommended to us that we arrive between 7 and 7:30.  Sundays are a lot less crowded than Fridays or Saturdays.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. This old bus at Bankersmith TX served the dual purpose of being a goat playground with an entrance on one side and the stage backdrop on the other side.

You can’t miss the yard entrance, it is right next to an old passenger bus which is part of the goat pen on one side.  (Yes, they do goat yoga.)  On the opposite side, the side panel of the bus becomes the the backdrop of the “stage” (simply a wooden platform).  People sat on picnic tables around the yard.  We assumed the interior of the ice house was closed, but we were wrong.  Inside is a large room with the bar along one wall.  The toilets are off of this room.  From the yard, you walk through a smaller room with a pool table in it to reach the bar.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The bar at Bankersmith TX opened to the outside on this raised platform. Musicians played on the platform to the left.

The other side of the bar is open to a raised outdoor platform and that is where we ordered our dinner and drinks.  Local musicians sat on the platform playing for tips.  There was corn hole on the lawn and a children’s playground set.  Since the county has had only one case of COVID-19 everyone acted as if things were normal.  You might even forget for a while…but then you realize how incredibly risky it was to let the children crawl all over the playground equipment.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our table in the yard at Bankersmith TX. Coming from an urban environment we are a little more COVID-19 cautious and chose the most isolated table. As you see, Maggie’s dog, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, was able to join us for the evening.

We had a great meal of pulled pork, fries, and Dr. Pepper.  Maggie opted for a Lone Star, the national beer of Texas.  Her grandfather “Pa” would have been so proud.  Longneck Lone Stars were his favorite beer-and he loved his beer!  Fitz (Maggie’s dog) was with us and was quite the hit with all the children.  He sat and took it all in, happy to not be left at home.


There is a sequel headed our way, but we saw the original Top Gun at the “drive-in” movie parking lot at Bankersmith TX.

Afterwards, we sat in the car and enjoyed the film, Top Gun.  About now you are putting your aviator glasses on and bobbing you head to Danger Zone.  You can go up to the bar all night.  Regular menu service ends at 8 pm, but they have a special movie night menu with popcorn, candy, and drinks.  You can keep your tab open through the movie.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. A chicken dinner, or rather dinner with the chickens.  I had a lot of fun taking pictures at Bankersmith TX, but this one of the chickens on the table was my favorite.

Leaving the parking lot at the end of the movie wasn’t too bad, but we did watch a few cars come pretty close to knocking over the projector in the hurry to get out.  The drive back to the ranch was tough on an unfamiliar road with no lights, but we made it.  We did a little packing before heading to bed.  Contractors are coming in the morning to work on the 60-day punch list, so we want to be gone before then.


Photo ©Jean Janssen Moulton, Texas

It was a foggy morning, but most had burned off by the time we left the ranch at 8:30 am.   In addition to the gas stop, lunch stop, and necessary stop, we are taking a detour by Moulton, Texas.  My daddy is buried there and we always stop by the cemetery when we pass through this part of Texas.  Both sets of his grandparents had farms in Moulton and he happily spent his summers there during his childhood.  We knew that he would want to return; I am sure he is at peace listening to the chicken and cows.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The outdoor pavilion at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Moulton, Texas was set up appropriately spaced for Mother’s Day Mass.

We stopped by and saw the new covered pavilion at St. Joseph’s.  It has been open less than three years.  I have been going to the church feasts since I was a child.  Rocky too has rarely missed the annual event.  He went for the first time when he was only nine months old.  The pavilion was still set up for yesterday’s Mother’s Day Mass, with chairs appropriately spaced apart.


Photo ©Jean Janssen Miniature donkey farm, Moulton, Texas

Driving out of Moulton we saw a miniature donkey farm and some of the residents hunting for shade near the fence line.  After that it was back to Houston and the reality of COVID-19.  Happy Mother’s Day.  Stay safe and healthy during these unprecedented times.



Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bankersmith, Texas dancehall, complete with chickens

Posted in domestic travel, road trip | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coming out of COVID-19: A Taste of the Texas Hill Country


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

I haven’t been out of Houston since our ill-fated trip to Vietnam in March.  Here in our urban setting (Houston is the 4th largest city in the USA), we are still wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing like crazy.  It’s Mother’s Day weekend, so Emma invited me on a Girls Weekend to her new ranch in the Texas Hill Country.  There will be only three of us and only family- Emma (my sister), Maggie (her daughter, my niece), and me.

IMG_0027Somehow we managed to make a 4-hour car ride last 7 hours.  In addition to stops for gasoline, lunch, and a “necessary stop”, Maggie really wanted to go to Buc-ee’s, an iconic travel stop, known for their clean restrooms, wide array of snack and logo items and their ballcap-wearing beaver mascot.  They also have a plethora of suggestive billboards dotting the Texas highways.  I read a great article in Texas Monthly about how the chain got started which I recommend.  I was pleased to see that Buc-ee was also wearing his facemask.


Photo ©Jean Janssen

We did a stop for groceries in Comfort, Texas (northwest of San Antonio) and then went to the ranch about 10 miles east, between Comfort and Fredericksburg, near the Old Tunnel State Park.  The park is centered around an old railway tunnel that is now home to millions of bats.  The Northern and Fredericksburg Railway ceased operations in 1942.  “The abandoned railroad tunnel that gives Old Tunnel its name is home to up to 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasilienses mexicana) and 3,000 cave myotis (Myotis velifer) bats from May through October. During those months, visitors come to watch the bats emerge from the tunnel nightly. Bat-viewing opportunities are available seven nights a week, and nightly educational presentations are given Thursday through Sunday.”  Texas Parks and Wildlife Official website.  The park is currently open on a reservations-only basis.

OLD-TUNNEL_web_1644Nearby is the Alamo Springs Cafe.  According to their website, the cafe is “[i]nconveniently located in the middle of nowhere between Fredericksburg and Comfort, TX, Alamo Springs Café serves serious food with a laid back atmosphere.  Cold beer. Live music. No frills.  Just the best food in Central Texas.”  Can they really make that claim?  Well they did snag the cover of Texas Monthly’s Best Burger Issue.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. With the barndamium in the distance, the J&J Crossing Ranch near Fredericksburg, Texas

Emma and her husband built their new barndamium at a high point on their property so we had a slow ride in on a rough road.  Totally worth it.  The new build is beautiful with a wood-paneled barn and and two-bedroom living quarters attached.  It really is so much more than the barndamium term implies and Emma has done a beautiful job even in her preliminary decorating.  Maggie and I stayed in twin beds in the Texas Room (guest room).  The old Spanish trail cut through their property and you can still see ruts made by the wheels of the stagecoaches that passed through.

Version 2

Joining us at the ranch was Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, Maggie’s dog, whose beautiful coloring perfectly matched Emma’s new comforter.

There was time for happy hour on the patio, a beautiful sunset, dinner, and then a movie on the 75-inch tv screen.  Wow!  We even went back out to enjoy the weather before turning in.  Morning found us once again on the patio.  No noise pollution here; you can only hear the birds.  After breakfast, we got dressed and headed towards Fredericksburg.  Unfortunately the Polaris (off road vehicle) is broken and it is the only way to get around most of the property, so we are going to do some touring of the local area instead of exploring the ranch.  (I am ok with this because once the Polaris is fixed I can hopefully wrangle another visit to the ranch.)  Things are starting to open up in Texas as we have (hopefully) passed the peak of the virus here.  We set out, face masks at the ready.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, just outside Fredericksburg, Texas.


Emma loves to take selfies. This one is at the biergarten outside the Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. You can find Texas Historical Markers all across the state.  Texas is the only state in the Union that was an independent nation (The Republic of Texas) at one point in time. However, this particular sign is a humorous tribute to the authentic ones.

Before the Willow City Loop, we stopped for a dino burger lunch at the biergarten at the old Sinclair Gas Station at Pecan Grove.  We stood in the gravel lot on the 6-feet apart markers with the cyclists, locals, and highway patrolmen.  They had spaced picnic tables across the lawn leading down to Marschell Creek.  (Emma has been inside when COVID-19 wasn’t raging.)  The burger and fresh-cut fries were awesome! We enjoyed the ideal setting overlooking the creek.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. I remember green stamps and the stores from my youth. This sign is on the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Pecan Grove Store near Fredericksburg, Texas. The original building on the property was a Sinclair gas station.

It is also fun to check out all the vintage signs from the Sinclair Gas Station that was originally at this location.  I remember this type of roadside store from my youth.  Before open container laws, my Daddy would stop at a place just like this and get a Lone Star beer for our drive out into the country.  The Pecan Grove Store was built in 1957 by Lawrence Segner who held the Segner homestead. The homestead dates from the 1800s and is just across Marschell Creek.  The first building on this property was the Sinclair service station.  The store and garage were added later.  Segner also “built a dance floor and band stand in the pecan grove where he had Saturday night dances. A local hub for years. He was a well known German sausage maker.”


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lining the fence posts with boots along the Willow City Loop, near Fredericksburg, Texas.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas.

After lunch, we drove to the nearby Willow City Loop.  This 13-mile ranch road is maintained by the county, but all the land is privately owned and you pass over cattle guards as you go from ranch to ranch.  My favorite was the ranch where the owner had lined all the fence posts with old cowboy boots.  The drive is particularly spectacular when the wildflowers are blooming.  We are a couple of weeks too late.  Emma said two weeks ago, the bluebonnets were almost finished but the lovely red and yellow wildflowers were in full bloom.  We just got a taste of the few that hung on.  Wildflower season in the Texas Hill Country is March through May.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Willow City Loop, Texas

The ride takes you through canyons and fields and is very popular, particularly with motorcycles.  To reach the Willow City Loop from Fredericksburg, take highway 16 North  towards Llano, Texas.  During the ride “the terrain changes from pastoral, gently rolling hills to a dramatic, rugged landscape of deep canyons, sky reaching jagged cliffs, meandering streams and phenomenal panoramic views.”  Fredericksburg Texas Online.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Vintage building along the main street in Fredericksburg set against the big blue Texas sky.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fredericksburg, Texas


Photo ©Jean Janssen. There are lots of wineries in the area. But this is Texas-old German Texas-so you have to have a local brewery as well.

After the loop, we went back into Fredericksburg.  I wanted to check out the vintage buildings.  Emma is a member of one of the local wineries and she gets a free tasting when she stops in the local tasting room.  Wine was a priority for Maggie; she just finished exams for her second year of law school.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Practicing social distancing while enjoying the wines at the Grape Creek Tasting Room in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Fredericksburg had lots of wonderful shops.  We might check those out tomorrow.  Today, Maggie’s priority was wine tasting.  As we walked down the main street, we were shocked at how few people were wearing masks.  It was crowded, but only a handful of people were wearing them.  We stopped into Grape Creek Vineyards’ tasting room and the three of us shared two tastings (6 choice per tasting).  We bought several bottles of wine to enjoy at the ranch and to take home.


Photo ©Jean Janssen Emma and Maggie at tasting stop #2 in Fredericksburg, Texas.

We did some window shopping, but the next stop was the Fat Ass Tasting Room.  Maggie likes her sweet wines and she had a ball with these sightly cheaper, and definitely less sophisticated selections.  She also tried the frozen sangria.  I offered to drive to our next stop, so I passed on these selections.  I tend to like the dry varieties anyway.  The labels were great and this would be a fun wine to gift.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Heath’s new tasting room dedicated to sparkling wines outside Fredericksburg, Texas.

Grape Creek Vineyards is affiliated with Heath Vineyards in California.  They have recently opened another new tasting room at the winery outside Fredericksburg.  This sister operation is dedicated to sparkling wines, a favorite of mine.  In fact, Boris and I recently enjoyed time at wineries in the Champagne region of France.  Since we had already had our tasting in town, we were not eligible for a free tasting at the Grape Creek Winery-we’ll enjoy dinner there later in the evening.  We decided to try the Heath Sparkling.  This time Maggie and I were doing the tasting.


Maggie and Natasha during the Heath Sparkling Wine tasting at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Enjoying our “pour” on the patio of Heath Sparking Wines overlooking the vineyards near Fredericksburg.

The four varieties are served with a food paring (very small).  If you decide to take home some bottles, your tasting fee is credited on your purchases.  There is a personal guide to your tasting and video presentations on the process of creating the Heath sparkling wines.  The building is very sleek and modern.  I am rather picky when it comes to sparkling wines, and I didn’t care of anything they served. Emma decided to join because the perks offered would be nice for her to share with her ranch guests.  Since she joined the three of us were able to enjoy a complimentary “pour” on their patio overlooking the vineyards.  Very nice.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The open air patio at Stout’s Trattoria at Grape Creek Vineyards outside Fredericksburg, Texas

We shut the place down.  We were literally the last people (besides staff) to leave the building.  We just crossed the parking lot to enjoy our dinner at Stout’s Trattoria, the on-property restaurant.  Although we didn’t partake, you are also able to tour and taste at the Grape Creek winery.  Of course, there is also a store for your purchasing pleasure.  Maggie, recognizing how much she had drank that day, immediately asked for some bread to soak up the alcohol.  Bread never tasted so good.

IMG_3772 2

Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the patio at Grape Creek Vineyards, Fredericksburg, Texas, holding it together after a day of wine tastings.

You can sit inside, on a covered patio, or on the open-air patio.  The sun had lowered so we were able to enjoy the open patio without too much heat.  All the spaces overlook the vineyards.  The food was very good.  Nothing too fancy, but very tasty.  We particularly liked the Hill Country Pizza.


Fred, masked, along the Old San Antonio Road between Fredericksburg and Comfort, Texas.

After that, it was back to the ranch.  On the way, I asked Emma to stop so I could get a picture of Fred, a masked bull (ok, not real), who overlooks the highway.  First Buc-ee with a mask and now Fred.  I am on a roll.  Back at the ranch, we enjoyed the sunset on the porch.  There was movie time, but we crashed pretty early (no surprise given the day’s main activity.)  Looking forward to another day in the hill country and celebrating Mother’s Day.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Sunset from the porch of the J&J Crossing Ranch in the Texas Hill Country.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Spotted in the biergarten at the Pecan Grove Store, near Fredericksburg, Texas.

Posted in domestic travel, road trip | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Headed home from Vietnam during COVID-19


Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Nha Rong or Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade at its own harbor. It is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam

Today we are trying to get home to Houston Texas from Vietnam as worldwide panic has set in over COVID-19.  Boris was convinced that he would sleep through the night knowing we had flights in the morning.  It didn’t work for me.  I kept thinking about all the things that could happen.  For the third night in a row, I didn’t get more than 3-4 hours of sleep.  I got up several times just to make sure that the flights were still going as scheduled.  Finally at 6 am on Sunday morning I hung it up and just got dressed for breakfast.


Boris and Natasha aboard the Saigon Princess. Note the changing lights of the Times Square building on the left and the Vincom Landmark 81 tower on the right.

We went down at 6:30 am and briefly saw our travel companions who were having breakfast and trying to make arrangements to have a room to change in when they got back from the tunnels and before they went to the airport.  After breakfast, I packed.  Later in the morning I went down to check out the pool because I really didn’t want to leave the hotel.  Boris went shopping and came back with a model junk.  The Park Hyatt Saigon has a beautiful pool, full sun and shaded seating areas and a great pool menu.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Beautiful art work in the Music Salon of the Park Hyatt Saigon.

I went back for a shower and we were going to have lunch by the pool, but it was too hot by then to sit outside fully dressed.  We ended up eating off the bistro menu in the music salon off the lobby.  Once Boris was finished he went to the lobby and found out the driver was already there a half hour early.  So then Boris wanted to leave and I had to rush through the lunch, pay the bill, close out the hotel tab, and change my shoes.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon’s Central Post Office.

The cruise line had arranged a driver and an English-speaking Uniworld representative to take us to the airport.  The cruise director saw us off at the front door of the Park Hyatt Saigon.  He handed me another mask, saying they wouldn’t let me move through the airport or fly without it.  He also told us to be prepared to be quarantined up to 14 days when we landed in Houston.  Check-in at the airport was easy.  Since we are Star Alliance Gold and EVA Air is a member of Star Alliance, we had the benefit of no line at check-in.  The representative was efficient but not friendly.  At that point the plane was still scheduled to take off on time.  I saw a bunch of people watching security inspect the checked bags.  Made me wonder if we would see ours again.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Detail on Saigon’s Central Post Office of French construction.

We had found out that Vietnam had cancelled all e-visas.  We were ok since we were already in the country but when we went through passport control I wondered what would happen if the flight got cancelled.  Would they let us back in?  Next was airport security.  It was set up with what looked like 20+ lanes, but they were only operating two due to the reduced traffic.  I tried to ask a question but none of the security agents would acknowledge or talk to you so I just had to guess what they wanted me to do.  We made it through with minimal delay.  I wasn’t exactly comfortable though.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. New years decoration in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

There was a lounge area so we went to wait there.  We could see our plane at the gate next to the Rose Lounge.  There were lots of food and drink choices, but I just couldn’t eat or drink anything.  At some point, Boris observed that I had been so calm through this whole ordeal.  I told him the truth; I was worried every step of the way but I knew he was nervous and our family back home was nervous and I just needed to keep the facade of calm for their sake.  He told me to keep it up.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris outside the Park Hyatt Saigon.

We boarded the plane to Taipei; it was packed.  Everyone was wearing a mask.  We texted Rocky to let him know our status.  We took off and landed early in Taipei.  At least I was no longer in a communist country.  We had a two-hour layover this time.  We reversed our process from the early morning hours on Thursday.  Same security check as last time, but there were a lot fewer people at the security check-point this time.  We passed by the lounge to find the gate.  It wasn’t opening until 1 hour before the flight, so we ended up sitting in the waiting area for the Los Angeles flight.  Lots of nervous Americans.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

When our gate area opened we went to that waiting area.  I ended up in line next to an American couple who started talking about scuba diving so I asked them if they were there for a dive trip in an effort to distract myself from how nervous I was about getting home.  They told me that they had planned to dive, but they were forced to go home because of the cancelled visas and an incident that had happened at their hotel.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The tour operator had come to their room and told them to throw everything into their bags and be downstairs in 5 minutes.  They were told not to go to the desk and check out.  When they got outside, everyone from the tour was there and they were quickly loaded into vehicles and took back roads to get out of the city.  Apparently one of the quests at the hotel had tested positive for COVID-19 and the police were on the were way to pick him up and quarantine everyone in the hotel.  They told me that they had not had contact with the individual, but I backed up anyway.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Indépendance Palace, more commonly known as the Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Fortunately they were not seated next to me on the plane.  The middle seat on my row was open, but I didn’t have the whole row.  This flight was much more crowded than when we came in.  I think it was people like us who wanted to get out while they still could.  We texted Rocky again to let him know our status.  Once we were underway, my only concern was whether I would be quarantined in the US.  My situation was no where near as serious, but I was reminded of the takeoff scene in the movie ARGO.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon Cathedral.

Well I made it to Houston.  Now to see what would happen regarding a medical inspection.  There were no medical forms to fill out on the plane.  I wasn’t sick and wasn’t running a fever, but Boris gave me two aspirin anyway just to be safe.  We had told Rocky not to come to the airport until after passport control because we didn’t know how long the process would last or if we would be quarantined.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Holiday decorations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I headed to passport control.  I have global entry.  I got my sheet but there were no questions to answer; the machine just took my picture.  It looked like the global entry checkpoint was closed even though the machines were operating, but then I found the opening around the corner-probably just a staffing issue.  It was just before 11 pm.  When I got to the desk, all he asked was if I had anything to declare.  I told him I wasn’t there long enough to buy anything (the truth).  That was it.  No temperature check.  No questions about what countries I had visited.  No medical questions.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Patterned tile floor in the Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I went downstairs and collected my luggage.  All of our items made it to Houston.  There was still customs, but they didn’t even stop us.  I didn’t see them stop anyone.  In all my travels, that was the fastest I had ever cleared immigration.  I found it kind of scary that we weren’t doing more as a country to prevent the introduction of the virus through returning US citizens who had been abroad or visitors.  I have been told that it is completely different if you are coming in from Europe.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City skyline outside the Saigon Opera House.

We contacted Rocky and he came out to pick us up.  While we waited inside next to a man whose daughter was coming in on our flight (she made it), I was really thirsty but I was afraid to cough in case someone would turn me in.  No one was wearing a mask.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Vietnam.

Some family members refuse to see me, but I won’t mention Emma by name.  I am practicing social distancing and have self-quarantined although I have gone to Costco and the grocery store for food and supplies.  There is widespread panic here.  Everything is closed.  But I am home.


Photo ©Jean Janssen. Saigon River at Night.

Two days after we left Vietnam they closed the border.



Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Nha Rong or Dragon House was established by the French in 1862 as a house of trade at its own harbor. It is now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Vietnam


Posted in cruises, international, River Cruise | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment