This is Part 2 of our 5-week/ 25-city Europe Magic Tour. Read Part 1 here.
Ning: When strangers and new friends ask me what I do, I politely tell them that J C & I are traveling gypsies. Think about it. Who travels 5 different European cities in 5 days, staying at different hotels each time?! International spies? Okay. You have a point.
We did a whole bunch of lectures this week. One each day in a different city in France.
Clermont-Ferrand is a bustling French city but feel free to skip their Notre-Dame cathedral. Seriously, though it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s basically known for its plainness. Its one and only redeeming feature is the rare Black Madonna housed in the cramp belly of its spooky underground crypt.
St Etienne is known for arts, culture and design. But I’ll always remember it as the coldest part of France we experienced. Temperatures dropped to below zero degrees at night and though yours truly was padded up like a fat Michelin tire man with multiple layers of clothing, this girl was still freezing her ass off. Not funny. Don’t. Like. Cold. And to add to the misadventure, J C & I were locked out of our hotel because after midnight the keycard doesn’t work and you need to buzz the bell and wait for someone (who would be obviously sleeping) to come to you.
So there we were, two Singaporeans haplessly waiting outside in the snow. I was practically scratching at the glass window when the night attendant finally opened the door to let us in. His sleepy/ grumpy face melted away into a mask of amusement when this Asian gal with snowflakes in her eyelashes, wearing a ridiculous winter hat (my red beanie has horns, which I thought were badass, but everyone fawned over them, thinking they were cat or rabbit ears. Sigh) started stomping out a crazy dance in the reception of the old European hotel, in a desperate attempt at thawing her frozen toes.
Anyway! Other French cities we lectured in included Grenoble, known as the “Capital of the Alps”, Nimes and the seaside city of Toulon.
Our lecture in Toulon was hosted by Ali Nouira (from Penn & Teller “Fool Us” fame) in his AMF Magic Shop. It is a lovely charming shop with a magical feel. He has a wall with autographs from famous magicians from across the world and we got to add to his wall of fame too!
It’s lovely how easy it was to go anywhere at our own time and pace, thanks to the freedom of self-driving. The GPS also pointed out where the nearest gas stations were, so that was super convenient. We never had to worry about running out of diesel!
J C: After a solid week of performing and lecturing, we had a full weekend off! Sweet! Ning had planned a great itinerary for us that would see us visit historical religious and political sites. It took us just two hours to drive from Toulon to Avignon, often referred to as the “City of Popes” because of the presence of popes and antipodes from 1309 to 1423. This is an ancient town and is home to the Palais des Papes (Palace of the Popes or “Pope-y Palace” as I affectionately called it, much to Ning’s chagrin) that is a historical palace in Avignon and one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.
We managed to get tour tickets for the Palace just before it closed and spent an hour roaming through the huge courtyards, halls, rooms and towers. Besides artifacts, paintings and historical documents, we also had a glimpse of the entire city from one of the palace towers.
Besides the main sights, one of the highlights of the destination was the ongoing holiday market that was set up in the main town square. It featured rows of stalls selling holiday goodies, souvenirs, food stuff and trinkets.
A stall selling dozens and dozens of varieties of homemade nougat caught our eye almost immediately as giant blocks of nougat were stacked on display at the front of the stall. We would soon find that almost every city we visited in Europe had its own holiday market as it was the start of the festive season. Walking through different European-style “pasar malams” would become a favourite ongoing attraction for us for the rest of the trip.
After a night in Avignon, we drove to the fortified French town of Carcassonne. This is an enormous castle that looks just like a set from King Arthur. I know, everything seems to remind me of a movie set. But, that is what Europeans probably think too when they visit Asia.
The town within the high stone walls reminded me of Mont St Michel with a similar layout of shops along the main street.
We could see the expansive lower city below the castle from the impressive view of one of the castle tower wings.
We chose to skip visiting the cathedral as Ning said she was experiencing chateau and cathedral fatigue; we had seen dozens of cathedrals and stone building in the last three weeks and, as beautiful as each of them were, they all began to look the same So, instead, we hopped back onto the car to begin a four-hour drive to Lourdes.
Ning: Since the 1800s, Lourdes has been a place of Roman Catholic pilgrimage, after Bernadette Soubirous, then 14 and the eldest daughter of an extremely poor family, had visions of the Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Lourdes) at the grotto on 18 occasions. During one of which, she was told to dig at a specific spot in the grotto (apparently Lourdes used to be a rubbish dump back in the old days) and miraculously, a spring emerged. The water is declared by the Vatican to be holy, having helped in miraculous healings of the sick and faithful.
So it was only natural that we headed to Lourdes on our precious free day to check out this holy place, get in touch with God, feel the higher power at the grotto …and get some holy water in case we ever need it during a vampire attack. Driving from lovely Carcassonne, it was dark and chilly when we finally reached Lourdes at 8pm. Since it was winter aka tourist off-peak season, only one hotel was open so we couldn’t get a room at the big swanky hotel run by Saint Bernadette’s family. Bummer.
After our late dinner, we walked over to the Lourdes Sanctuary since the gates were open till midnight. We spent about two hours exploring the holy site, which appeared serene and peaceful in the cold crisp air. To be honest, I had a romanticized image of the holy water springs where pilgrims collected vials at the fountain. But it turned out that the holy water of Lourdes dispenses from a whole line of regular taps, like those in a public bathroom. Still, J C and I made our donations and filled up our tiny vials provided, which still had their “made in PRC” stickers on them.
Sitting at the grotto, watching the flickering candle lights and relishing the quiet peace with other people, lulls one into screensaver mode. By the time I cleared my head, it was minutes to midnight! We quickly scrambled to leave, heading towards the main gates. The security guard drove past us on the way and I panicked because he was going to lock the gates. J C was confident he had seen us and it would be okay. Not! By the time we finally reached the massive iron gates (it was a very long walk from the grotto), we found them all chained and locked up, with no security guard in sight. J C went to look for someone since the guard post was empty but it was obvious that the guard had left after clocking in his hours.
So there we were, freezing in the cold (I could see my breath mist up!), wondering what to do, when I spied the barbwire fence on our right. A portion on its top had been pretty much flattened out and there was a lamppost near it. It was possible to scale the green fence, climb over the barbwire and slide down the lamppost to reach the other side. I grinned and looked at J C. It was pretty funny really, how we had to break out of paradise. Wearing skinny jeans sucked because the barbwire did poke my butt, but at least I got to spend a comfortable night in the hotel room we paid for. Amen.
J C: Temperatures were getting colder as we approached the end of November and as we headed north up to Switzerland from our preceding visits in Bordeaux and Dijon, France.
The drive from Dijon to Geneva was relatively short and the route was scenic taking us around snow-capped mountains and through mountain tunnels. Our work schedule did not really allow us to take in the sights although we did walk along Lake Geneva and the old town. In Zurich, we also spent a short time in the old town and sampled the local cuisine of raclette and cheese fondue.
One immediate noticeable difference between driving in Switzerland and the other European countries was the very strict traffic and speeding regulations the country had. Speed cameras seemed to be positioned almost every kilometer, whether on the highway or on city roads (major or minor). Almost every junction seemed to have a red light camera as well. So, after weeks of cruising in Germany and France, we felt ourselves virtually crawling from Geneva to Zurich. For some reason, Zurich reminded us of Singapore, part of it is due to the clinical feel the city had. It seemed to lack the character and charm that the other European cities had. In fact, Singapore is commonly referred to as the “Switzerland of the East” due to similarities in the governing, regulations, economy but I think also in part to the culture and feel of the city.
J C: We woke up to a snowing morning in Zurich, the first time it was snowing in this trip. Our entire car was covered in 5cm of thick soft fluffy snow and it took ten minutes just to clear the snow from all the windows.
Wet, cold but happy (OK, I was happy, Ning was just cold) to be engulfed in snowflakes, we left Switzerland for Germany where we would spend the next few days. I had to be more careful driving in snow as roads were more slippery and the snow was falling sideways instead of straight down and splattering against the windscreen.
Our first stop was the baroque style old town of Heidelberg. This charming old town is dominated by the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, 80m above the Neckar on the steep wooded slopes of the Königstuhl (King’s chair or throne) hill. The Main Street (Hauptstrasse) is a mile-long pedestrian street, running the length of the town and a huge holiday market was scattered along the entire stretch.
Holiday markets in Germany were my favourite as they would sell Glühwein, a winter wine that was steaming hot, sweet and spicy. It consists of red wine, cloves, lemon or orange juice and sticks of cinnamon all boiled together in a large vat. I was so happy that our trip was during the onset of winter and not earlier, just for this reason alone!
After Heidelberg, we drove to Dusseldorf for a lecture. It was in a fantastic magic shop cum school owned by the former German President of the Magic Circle. He is an endearing man and his shop includes a small stage and “sessioning” area for magic classes.
After Dusseldorf, we hopped over to Bonn, the former capitol of Germany. This is another old German city and is the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven. In the old town center, we found (surprise, surprise!) another holiday market. That meant more Glühwein, so yay!
Ingo Brehm hosted us in Bonn and is a all-round nice guy and really passionate about magic. It was a pleasure meeting him and the only pity is that we did not spend more time with
Our last night in Bonn was a long one as immediately after we finished our show/ lecture around midnight, we had to drive to Paris where we would be taping a television show the very next morning at 11am. We were told that it would take 6 hours to drive from Bonn to Paris so we decided to drive through the night and hopefully get a few hours of sleep before having to go to the television studio. This was better than the alternative of sleeping a few hours and then trying to drive cross country while half awake, not counting the problem of encountering possible early morning traffic.
So, with coffee in hand, I started to drive from Germany, through Belgium to France. The first half of the journey was on the autobahn so I actually clocked a consistent speed of 180km/ hour. I used the tactic of always having another car about half a kilometer in front of me to light up the road ahead because I knew at that speed, any surprises on the road would be hard to navigate around. Thankfully, there were no incidents and traveling at high speeds on the almost empty motorway saved us a lot of time. We reached Paris in four and a half hours flat.
Ning: Have you cut your teeth into freshly baked French pastries? You know, the authentic stuff where the delightful feel of warm butter creams in your mouth as soft flakes crumble around your lips when you savor fragrant croissants just out of the oven. Have you heard that beautiful crackling a perfect French baguette makes as you gleefully break it in two? Mmmm… I love the smell of Paris in the morning. Freshly baked patisserie, yummy soufflés and all that…
Despite the mad rush and long, late hours driving from Bonn to Paris, our TV filming for “Le Plus Grand Cabaret Du Monde’s” New Year Eve 2013 special went really fab! It really is an honor being the only Singaporeans booked again for France’s top rated variety show, watched by over 40 million people around the world!
J C and I performed illusions they’d never seen before, a role reversal of the sexes because this time, the woman dominates. The live audience and host loved our illusion show because it wasn’t your stereotypical magic act. Watch out performance on Youtube by clicking the photo below:
All work and no play makes traveling gypsy magicians dull so we had to kick off our shoes and let down our hair (except for J C cos his hair is always perpetually in gravity-defying spikes)! We had a great time checking out the iconic Notre-Dame cathedral, as well as, the stunning St-Germain l’Axerrois Church across the street from the Louvre.
As you may know, Notre-Dame de Paris, is a well-loved UNESCO world heritage site and it’d be totally tragic for you to miss this when you’re in Paris! Between the (ugly) Eiffel Tower and the (majestic) Notre-Dame by the River Seine, the pick is an obvious one if you’ve only got little time to spare. A bunch of us celebrated J C’s birthday at a swanky Parisian restaurant just opposite the Louvre and St-Germain l’Axerrois Church was just next to it. The church is gorgeous at night, mysteriously cloaked in light and shadow, and painted in different sparkling colors of changing lights.
Today was our final lecture of our tour and it was fitting to be in Paris, the city of romance. We had a great turnout and well known French magician, Boris Wild, was our translator. We had presented 20 lectured by this point and had made it a point to have a structure and flow to our lecture so that it was not just educational but entertaining as well.
“3 Sides of Magic” is the name of the lecture and showcases our work in close-up, mentalism and stage. We also have a discussion on stage illusions in the middle of the program. We were really happy to end on a high note with a highly successful last lecture in Paris.
After the lecture, we were thrilled to be able to have dinner and spend time with our dear friend, Jean Luc Betrand. Adeline had flown in from Singapore to meet us in Paris for “Le Plus Grand Cabaret” so it was great that we could all spend time together after work. I’ve known Jean Luc since 1999 ( ? thereabouts) and he joked that we had not seen each other for 10 years and then have seen each other two years in a row. (We met up with him last year when we taped our first appearance on “Le Plus Grand Cabaret”.)
The night before, I had a real treat as well, as I spent my birthday with Ning & Adeline as well as another friend in magic Xavier Belmont. We had met him a few weeks earlier in his hometown of Brest. We also all met earlier in the year in Italy. He surprised me with a birthday cake as well as a birthday gift in the cake. Talk about a “coin in cake” effect!
I first knew Xavier as I commissioned him to custom make various items for me. He makes the best custom coins for magic in my opinion and I had him make me another set during this trip. If you are serious coin magician, have a look at his work here. I have worked with coins from the best coin makers in the world and consider Xavier’s work the best.
Ning: After all our adventures in Europe, it was finally time to leave. To be honest, it was kinda surreal how 5 weeks flew by so fast, but then again I did have a few bouts where I deeply craved local Singapore dishes like my favorite fish head curry and spicy chilli crab, after my generous stash of bahkwa ran out!
Driving to Charles de Gaulle airport to catch our flight back to Singapore and return our car was easier than learning a new magic trick. I kid you not. No hours of blood, sweat and tears. All I had to do was use the smart locate feature in our Hertz “NeverLost” GPS navigation system to find the Hertz car return office at the international airport! After gathering our stuff and saying emotional final goodbyes to our trusty ride, I went to return the keys and sign the bill for our Benz. It was a quick and painless experience dropping off our car; no hassles with complicated paperwork whatsoever… sweet!
You can bet that I’m truly glad we did this non-stop 25 city Europe tour completely by self-drive. If I had to do it all over again, I’ll be doing it all the same. But, maybe if possible… with James Franco instead of J C Sum. >;-)
J C: This tour was a great experience and we managed to pack in a crazy schedule. It was a tough 5 weeks, considering we also joined a cruise ship that we headlined, the day we flew back from Paris. However, we made loads of new friends, showcased our magic to a new European audience and continued to build our brand worldwide.
I learnt a lot interacting with so many different magicians and observing differences in styles, approach and presentation. European magic is distinct from magic in Asia and the U.S. and an awareness of the strengths and commercial appeal of different styles helps mold our own product and international perspective of presenting magic to different audiences. We already have our sights set on two different markets for another tour, depending how our schedule works out this year. Can’t wait!