From 4 Nov to 8 Dec 2012, Ning & I embarked on a first-ever 5-week magic tour in Europe that saw us perform, lecture and appear on the top variety TV show, “Le Plus Grand Cabaret Du Monde”, in France.
Along the way, we visited historic sites across the region in a road trip that saw us drive 9500km (the equivalent of driving across Singapore from east to west 197 times!) that covered 25 cities in 5 countries. This is the journey in our own words.
Thanks to Hertz for being the official partner for this road trip!
Ning: Strip searches are never fun. You won’t believe how many times this purple-haired gal has been stopped in various international airports around the world. Maybe immigration officers assume I’m some kinda radical punk terrorist. Thankfully, I didn’t get this special treatment when we touched down in Germany after 16 hours of flying from Singapore!
Finding the Hertz car rental counter at the Frankfurt airport was a breeze; it wasn’t too far from where we picked up our luggage. It was 6am but the Hertz reps wore bright smiles on friendly faces. J C & I are both Gold members, having been loyal Hertz customers for years. So after flashing them the usual ID (our international driver’s licenses and passports), we got the keys to our car in just a few short minutes!
Our ride was a sleek and sexy black Mercedes Benz E Class model, equipped with the Hertz “NeverLost” GPS navigation system. The amused Hertz fellas at the garage thought I was Japanese because I was a total cam-whore, getting J C to take pictures of me at the wheel and around our car like I was a F1 Grand Prix race queen. Meowrrr. I just wanted to get acquainted with our sweet ride for the next 35 days, ya know? 😉
You see, for this 25-city tour in Europe, the initial plan was to travel by train; however, we decided to rent a car instead and do a road trip. After all, self-drives provide complete flexibility and control. Its fab when you can totally manage your own time and be free to check out places worth visiting, instead of being at the mercy of fixed schedules or train strikes. Also, it’s so much more reassuring knowing our stuff is safe with us in our own car. Too many people I personally know have had their luggage and backpacks stolen on train rides.
I was super happy with our decision to spend the 5 weeks driving all over Europe. J C’s the more experienced driver between us, so the plan was that I’d only take over at the wheel when he needed a break. Otherwise, he appointed me “tour manager/ navigator” and I had to look out for our destinations and help get us there. Thank God for GPS now; because yours truly totally sucks at map reading (don’t you dare laugh)!
Our first stop was Castrop-Rauxel, a sleepy old town less than 3 hours away from Frankfurt international airport. I was glad J C drove today because it took a little while getting used to driving on the other side of the road, and there’s no speed limit on German highways! Finding our hotel was easy. All I had to do was key in the postal code and by satellite magic, the route was swiftly calculated by our GPS! We spent the night in a quaint bed & breakfast where we spend our first meal and night in Europe. German schnitzel and sauerkraut!
J C: We did our very first “3 Sides of Magic” lecture in Castrop-Raxuel and it was a great first lecture to “break” us into the tour. We spent the next day and night in the beautiful city of Cologne, based on the recommendation of our new German friends. Cologne is located on both sides of the Rhine River and is home to the famous Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) that is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne. It is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe and has the second-tallest spire and largest facade of any church in the world. It looked quite surreal; an ancient structure sticking out in the center of an urban jungle, almost like a part of Gotham City from a Batman movie.
Feeling like we could use a workout, we climbed 509 stone steps of the spiral staircase to the top of the cathedral some 98m above the ground. Imagine a narrow spiral staircase with steep steps, flanked by stone walls that never seem to end! After huffing and puffing, we reached the top and had a fantastic scenic view of the city and over the Rhine. The rest of the day saw us visiting museums, taking in the sights and eating at a fantastic German restaurant.
J C: Driving through the invisible borders from Germany into Netherlands was smooth and the only adjustment that I had to make was to slow down. The German autobahn has no speed limit so it is easy to drive at 160 km as everyone is driving fast, but in Netherlands, a more modest speed limit is observed by all. Our destination was a small countryside town called Velden.
In fact, it is so small that not many Dutch people have even heard of it. I followed the GPS that brought us off the main highway onto dirt roads flanked by cows, lambs and horses. I was thinking: “Where are we and why would we be giving a magic lecture here?” As secluded as this town was, it is surprisingly home to one of the largest magic shops in Holland, “Dynamite Magic Shop”. It is an amazing “Brick & Mortar” store and is run by René Geelen. It is tremendously well stocked and organized – I was really impressed!
Later that night, we gave our lecture to magicians who had come from all corners of Netherlands to meet us. It was a great turnout and we had a great time making new friends.
We spent the night at a homely bed and breakfast country cottage that was run by a lovely old couple. However, the couple had evidently never hosted Asians before and was only familiar with Singapore by name. Ning could not help but stare in disbelief when the lady of the house asked us if we had contact lenses in Singapore and if we knew what a blog was, as she was proud that the Netherlands had both. Seriously?
Ning: Eric Eswin, our dear friend and highly-respected past President of FISM (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques), warmly invited us to his lovely house in the Dutch village of Leiderdorp. After cooking a hearty lunch because we’d driven 3 hours from Velden’s quaint countryside to meet him, Eric and his wife brought us to The Hague, capital city of the province of South Holland in the Netherlands.
Believe it or not, in just two short hours, we saw the whole of Holland. How? No, not by magic, but in the form of miniature Holland aka Madurodam. In this attraction, the country’s most prominent cities, locations and buildings were all perfectly recreated in miniature scale.
There’s even a parked SIA aircraft in the model of the airport. From giant Dutch clogs to miniature windmills, it was a novel way to “see” Holland. We did visit some actual sites when we went into town to Binnenhof and the Knight’s Hall, the political Dutch centre where the Parliament, Royal Conservatory of The Hague and Royal Academy of Art are all located.
Oh yes! At the Madurodam souvenir shop, our friends bought me the cutest yellow Dutch clogs. They’re really fluffy bedroom slippers and are super comfy; it’s like walking with cushy pillows at your feet. J C makes fun of the bright yellow clashing with what I have in my wardrobe, but I think the man’s just jealous ‘cos he didn’t get any 😉
Ning: Driving 6 hours from Holland to reach the country of wine, cheese and sexy accents, we spent days working in Mulhouse, Lille and Nancy before having a free day (and lecture) in Reims, home of Champagne.
Lecture in Nancy
Lecture in Lille
Reims is a quaint city has a beautiful rustic charm about it and the food was awesome! We totally pigged out on the Sabbath, yours truly having a huge pot of mussels in cream all to herself while J C went for a trio of unsuspecting paellas (rice stews).
The historic Notre-Dame de Reims, where past kings of France were once crowned, is a must see UNESCO world heritage site! The cathedral’s interior is spectacular and also boasts a gorgeous stained-glass installation designed by my fave French artist, Marc Chagall. You know that iconic artwork in the movie Nottinghill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant? That’s the “La Marie” by the man himself, Marc Chagall.
The cathedral’s exterior is even more intricate, layered with beautiful statues including their famous Smiling Angel (“L’Ange au Sourire”), a symbol of the martyred cathedral during WW1, as well as, the whole city of Reims. Have fun searching for it! A hint you say? Okay, here’s a clue: L’Ange au Sourire is directly to the right of the cathedral’s main door. Don’t forget to take pictures and make a wish!
J C: After almost a week in France, we took a 6-hour drive up to Anvers, Belgium for our next lecture. We had actually driven through Belgium in our first week when we drove up to Holland, so were in fact, retracing our route. But, that was how our tour was planned by the European organizer. We met up with the local organizer, Gunther Guinée, a fine magician in his own right who was having success on “Belgium’s Got Talent”.
We would have loved to see more of the country but our schedule did not allow it. I did however get to taste their local “Duvel” (Devil) beer that has a reputation of being the strongest local beer. It was very good and I’m happy that I did not have to drive after that one glass.
J C: After the night in Belgium, we drove another 5 hours back down to France and stopped by Poitiers, a university town as well as the place known for Futuroscope, a theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio-visual techniques. Unfortunately, the park was not opened when we were there so we did not get a chance to visit it.
We did spend time in Brest & Lorient, about 4 hours way, two cities that were formerly part of the Kingdom of Brittany before uniting with the Kingdom of France in 1532 as a province.
After two days of work, we made our way to what is my favourite destination of the entire trip, Mont St Michel (Le Mont St. Michel). It was a 3 hour drive from Lorient to Mont St Michel but I was getting used to the duration of the journeys now. By this time, I considered a 3 to 4 hour drive the norm and a 1 to 2 hour drive short. By Singapore standards of course, a 1 hour drive anywhere would be considered painfully long. I had also discovered when I could drive a bit faster at times and when to slow down to avoid speed traps and cameras; so, I do admit to going over the speed limit on a few occasions. In the early afternoon, it was with great excitement that we drove up to our hotel just off the causeway to Mont St Michel.
Ning had visited this old city island, known as the Wonder of the Western World, the year before and wanted me to experience its beauty and rich history as well and I’m glad she did. Mont St Michel is a standalone rocky tidal island surrounded by marsh and quicksand that separates it from the main land. It looks like a set from Lord of the Rings and, at some angles, reminded me of the Magic Kingdom in Disneyland.
Upon entering the fortified village gates, we walked up the main street that was lined with souvenir stalls, restaurants and pubs on either side.
Right at the top of the small mountainous city was the Gothic-style Benedictine Abbey dedicated to the archangel St Michael that was first built way back in the year 709. As we entered the abbey museum, we chose to take the audio guide that led us through the history and architecture of this fascinating place.
At the top of the Abbey, we had a panoramic view of the quicksand and small islands that surround Mont St. Michel. It was said that dozens of pilgrims that came to Mont St. Michel in ancient times fell into quicksand pools or were washed away by the strong tides.
Believe it or not, spending the day at Mont St Michel gave me much inspiration for magic & illusion ideas, designs elements and theatrical presentations. Just being in such a charming historic location felt like magic and brought it out of me. Ning just thinks I’m an uncool magic geek.
We ended the day with an “interesting” dinner. We decided to dine at the famed La Mère Poulard restaurant that has served famous diners such as Ernest Hemingway and Yves Saint Laurent.
We ordered their signature fluffy omelet that is several inches thick, made in copper bowls and cooked over an open fire. The price listed was 25 euros for each omelet but the eventual bill came up to 150 euro for two fluffy omelets. That’s over SG$250 for about 4 eggs. Why did we have to pay so much? I suggest you do a Web Search for Ning’s Trip Advisor review of the restaurant to find out. The restaurant’s motto is probably “there is a sucker born every day” and this time, we magicians were not the ones doing the “honest” deceiving.
Read Part 2 here!