Grant McWilliams

Paris - part one

Ah Paris. I took my first trip to Paris in 2004 and only spent a day in the city. Paris and French culture in general felt very foreign to me – foreign enough that I didn't feel comfortable. I vowed to return and stay until I felt at ease so we did the next summer. We stayed in Paris for a month in the summer of 2005 and have been doing the same almost every year since. We've loved Paris enough that my oldest daughter quite both of her jobs in the US and moved there on an au pair Visa when she was 21. That was a couple of years ago and she's still there on a student Visa.


Paris is divided up into twenty arrondissements or districts. In the past we've stayed in the 5th, 7th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th arrondissements in the past and this time around decided to stay in the 10th, I'll get to why in a moment. The different arrondissements have their own character but my favorite is the 7th on the left bank. The arrondissements are numbered like a spiral (or snail) starting from the center of the city where the celtic people used to live and where Notre Dame is today. The 5th, 7th, 14th and 15th arrondissements are on the left bank. The 10th, 17th and 18th are on the right bank. The left bank is the home of the Eiffel tower, Napoleon's tomb and the Latin quarter with the Sorbonne University and Pantheon. The right bank hosts the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Opera Garnier and Notre Dame. I like going to the right band but I like living on the left bank.


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Pont du Gard

Full Pont du Gard Gallery

When the Romans paid to have Nimes built the local Celtic people built it in the same location as their village. As Nimes grew they needed access to more water to serve the population so the Romans did what they knew best – engineer a solution. They built a 35 mile long aquaduct to bring water to their fledgling city. Not only was this an amazing feet but part of it is still standing – the Pont du Gard.


The Pont du Gard is 160 ft high and nearly a quarter of a mile in length spanning a ravine. The Pont du Gard only drops 1 inch in elevation over it's 1100 ft of length. The entire aquaduct drops about 50 ft over it's 35 miles! The Romans were very precise.


While we were in Nimes we took a bus to the Pont du Gard. The Tango bus company's office is behind the train station in the small plaza. We were able to buy a family pass to Pont du Gard for about 20 Euros including transportation which is pretty amazing.

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Nimes, France

Full Nimes Photo Gallery


Last year we spent a week in Provence because our Paris apartment wasn't available when we needed it. We got an adequate apartment in Avignon because it and Arles were the cities that Rick Steves told us to stay in. We chose Avignon because it was larger and less “gritty” according to him. My daughter's boss however said she liked Nimes best and we probably should have listened to her as we'd find out later it was our favorite.


As a repeat from last year our Paris apartment wasn't ready again so we decided to introduce my mother to Europe with a week in Nimes in the Languedoc region. It feels like Provence though as it's right on the border and no more than a 30 minute train ride from the most popular Provencal cities. Since we'd spent a day there we familiar with the layout of the city and found a house fairly near the train station and the center of town.


The house had two bedrooms, a large kitchen, a back yard with patio and bbq and a large front room. The most impressive characteristic though was the beautiful tiled floors that stayed cool all day long in the very hot summers of southern France. Coming from Seattle where the summer temps rarely break 25 degrees Celsius (77 F) we immediately had to acclimate to 34-37 degrees (93-99 F). Having a cold tiled floor helped out a lot as did brilliant metal shutters.


Sometimes while traveling you see something and wonder why we don't have the same thing back home and metal shutters are one of those things. Metal shutters are a lot like having garage doors on your windows. Too much heat or light? Just flip the switch and down comes the shutters which have holes in them to let light in. At the very last minute they flip over and all light is gone. Not only do they keep out the heat but they'll make room pitch black in a hurry. In the morning we'd close the eastern shutters and in the evening the western shutters. At noon all windows were open to let the breeze flow through. They're brilliant to be honest. I'm not sure they offset not having screens on the windows as we would in the states. Screenless windows are a strange European oddity. We asked our French friend why they never have screens on the windows and he replied “Screens? What are screens?”. After explaining that they keep the bugs out he told us they just didn't open the windows. Problem solved. So they get awesome metal shutters and we get screens. I'd like to know why we can't have both.


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Getting to France

Misc Photo Gallery

When it came time to purchase plane tickets we went through the usual process – check every city pair we can think of between the Pacific Northwest and Europe such as Portland to London, Portland to Paris, Portland to Brussels, Seattle to London, Seattle to Paris and so on. I generally check Portland, Seattle and Vancouver BC for departing flights and London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Frankfurt, Barcelona and many others for my destination. is a godsend for this task as you can leave the destination open or even narrow it to a country and it will show you the cheapest flights. You can even have it show you the cheapest flight in a month range. What we ended up with was Vancouver BC to Paris France for $716 round trip in the middle of peak travel season. That is the second cheapest flight to Europe that I've ever purchased. The cheapest flight from Seattle was $500 more. Unfortunately the Vancouver flight was on Airtransat which we flew last year to Amsterdam and vowed to never again fly them. It seems everyone can be bought and our price was $500.

Naturally flying out of another city isn't free. We booked Amtrak Cascades train tickets from Seattle to Vancouver BC for $20 each way and we had to pay for the Vancouver Sky Train to get us to the airport so our total savings was $445 per person – still worth the trouble.


I might want to add that my mother has never flown before and I convinced her to sit in one spot at 40,000 ft for 10 hrs the first time out. She was a trooper with the flight but took a bit longer to get used to airport security and even remarking at some point that it was amazing anyone flew.


The arrival in Vancouver has gotten slower as they now de-board the train a couple of cars at a time to stand in line for immigration. The idea that there's a border between the US and Canada is insane to begin with but to take an hour to go through immigration shows how amateur we as a country is.


Read more: Getting to France

Trip Planning

I've been spending virtually every summer in Europe for 11 years. When I started traveling we were four people - myself and my three young kids ages 7, 8 and 12. I've added a couple of people to my family with my significant other and her 14 year old daughter bringing us to six travelers. In the last couple of years two of my children have grown up and moved out with my oldest living in Paris full time which dropped us back to a family of four. The combination of having fewer travelers, an amazing exchange rate, and a killer deal on peak season plane tickets left us with a bit of room in our budget for someone else – my 75 year old mother.


Now I should tell you that my mother hasn't traveled much unless you call a quick drive from Washington to Illinois traveling. I suppose we shouldn't forget that one trip to Las Vegas in the early 1960's either – still no major travels. Several years ago I took her across the border to Vancouver British Columbia and she loved it. Vancouver seemed so... foreign to her. There were French speaking people, the money looked different and the metric system.


Last year we attempted to take my mother to Europe but she refused due to her age (75) and the fact that she's not as mobile as she once was. I think there were other factors too – you don't just go from wanting to travel your whole life to getting on an airplane for 10 hrs specially when you'd never flown before. That's right – NEVER. However, I bought her a non-refundable ticket this year and paid to get her passport application turned in. Once that was done I continued to update her on my progress in planning the trip and things started getting real.


Plane tickets out of Seattle to anywhere in Europe were $1300 but we could leave Vancouver BC for $716. Multiply that by 5 and you have a month's rent in Paris paid for just by flying out of a different airport. This meant we'd have to take the Amtrak Cascades train to Canada and possibly stay the night on our return trip. It also meant we were leaving on June 23rd and not returning until August 28th – a 10 week adventure. This doesn't bother me much as I've only had one trip in which I wanted to come home. That trip ended with 4 cases of Montezuma's Revenge, a heart attack, three ambulances, one cardiologist, a hotel doctor, on case of fainting at the airport curb, two days holed up in a hotel trying to hold toast down, three blocked bank cards and an airline that told us to get a new passport at the embassy before they could allow us on the plane. THAT trip I wanted to come home from and in fact, we came home early which is the only time I've ever done that. My perfect trip is a one-way ticket so I was more than willing to book a 10 week vacation.


My original master plan was to spend one month in Paris and a second month in Croatia with a few days in between to travel to where my mother's side of the family came from – Thornbury England. Whenever you travel you can save money by staying in one spot for a longer period of time. Usually you can get weekly or monthly rates on apartments that save a ton of money. However, due to the late acquisition of funding for the trip the apartment pickings were slim and the Paris apartment we wanted was only available for 3 weeks which meant we'd fly into Paris and have a week to blow before getting into our apartment. Our options were to rent another apartment for a week in Paris... or go somewhere else. One week rentals in Paris are more expensive then renting for a month so I had to budget $125 per day for accommodations for that week. For contrast we were paying about $85 per day for the other 3 weeks. As we dug through the remaining apartments in Paris that we could fit into our budget we came to the realization that we didn't like any of them so we considered our options. The previous year we stayed in Provence for a week and toured Avignon, Arles, Nimes and Orange. Out of those four cities Nimes was by far our favorite. A quick search for apartments there yielded a whole house for $68/night not far from the historic center! One week's rent in Nimes plus five return tickets on France's high speed train brought our daily cost to $120 which fit into our budget. Nimes is a town of about 150,000 people so it would be a more gentle introduction to Europe for my mother as well. Paris can be a bit overwhelming at times.


Read more: Trip Planning

Daily budget summary - Europe 2015

Over the course of this summer I mentioned several times the cost of various places we traveled to. As I write my trip journals I put things in perspective. Here's our costs for each city. This is our total daily budget for 5 people including accommodations, food, local transportation and admission to museums etc.. I'll be writing more in the trip journals later.


Nimes, France $168
Paris, France $180
London $370
Lubljana, Slovenia  $175
Zadar, Croatia $165
Split, Croatia $165
Ciovo, Croatia $165
Florence, Italy $225
Bologna, Italy $235



Nimes - We rented a 2 bedroom house in Nimes and our budget probably could have been $20 cheaper but it was the beginning of the trip so we spent our entire daily amount.

Paris - We rented a 2 bedroom apartment in Paris. This includes daily metro rides, entrance to museums and eating out every 3rd night.

London - this got us one room in someone else's apartment and an air mattress. Our budget would have been $25 higher if we didn't eat free breakfast provided by our host and take the bus instead of the subway. This paid for NO museums or churches.

Ljubljana - We got a 4 bedroom gorgeous apartment in the historic center and 50% of our meals in restaurants. If we booked for a week we would have saved $50 per day.

Zadar - We got a 2 bedroom apartment in the historic center. We were able to eat out several times. No long term discounts.

Split - We got a 2 bedroom apartment near old town. Had I booked earlier we would have spend $30 less per day. No long term discounts.

Ciovo - We got a 3 bedroom apartment 40 meters from the sea. We cooked all of our meals. Had I booked earlier we would have spent $30 less per day. No long term discounts.

Florence - we rented a 1 bedroom apartment with a mini-kitchen. We ate out 50% of the time, didn't use public transportation and didn't pay for any museums.

Bologna - we rented a 1 bedroom apartment. We ate out 50% of the time, didn't use public transportation and didn't pay for any museums.



The cities in Croatia and Nimes, France come in about the same price with Ljubljana and Paris being a tad higher. The two Italian cities are a good $50 more per night and the one extreme is London at roughly double the group average. Ljubljana could be a killer deal if we stayed a week. Croatia gave no discounts for longer stays. Paris was a bargain because we stayed 3 weeks. Had we stayed only for a couple of days it would have added $50 to the price. 


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Europe 2015 trip photos

I've just returned from a 10 week trip to Europe and have uploaded all of my travel photos. I've attempted to put descriptions in each gallery but I'll never have the time to label each photo unfortunately.

We flew out of Vancouver BC direct to Paris France. We then hopped the TGV to Nimes where we spent a week before returning to Paris for 3 weeks. We needed to get to Croatia from Paris but flights from London were half the price and my mother's family came from England so we combined the flight and a trip to Thorbury England to see the old dead dudes together. There's a much longer story in there but it will have to wait....

Our flight to "Croatia" was actually to Trieste Italy where we took a taxi to Villa Opicina where we got a Slovenian taxi to Ljubljana. We stayed there for 3 days before taking a train to Zagreb Croatia and a bus from there to Zadar Croatia where we spent a week.  A bus took us from Zadar to Split for 5 days and then we moved to the island of Ciovo to rest and relax.

We flew from Trogir/Ciovo/Split to Florence Italy where we had two days and then a highs speed train took us to Bologna for two days and then we flew back to Paris and on to Vancouver BC again. The Amtrak Cascades train took us home.

I'll do a real blog post later (or even a series) outlining the trip itself. Until then here's the link

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Valentine's day weekend

For Valentine's day weekend I take my significant other to Canada. Well, that's not the plan usually but in the Seattle area we don't have a lot of other choices besides Canada and HippyVille (Portland) if we want to get out of town. Last year we took the Victoria Clipper to Victoria BC. This year we took the Amtrak Cascades to Vancouver BC.  Due to site maintenance the photos have just now gone up - vancouver-bc-2015

By far my favorite way of getting to Vancouver is by train. There's two trips per day, it only takes about 3 hrs from Everett, the view of the Puget Sound is wonderful and it's comfortable. Usually tickets run about $20 each way. I know you can drive it in about the same amount of time but it's just not the same. Culturally Vancouver isn't THAT much different than Seattle although it seems to be a bit more cosmopolitan. The three things that give Vancouver somewhat of a "foreign air" is the Canadian Currency, the Metric System and the number of people with French accents. However, when we drive to Vancouver it doesn't feel that much different than going to Portland or Spokane because you're isolated from the people around you. When you take the train you rub elbows with the locals, use the Skytrain, Seabus, Aquabus and regular buses to get around. It FEELS like you went somewhere.  I highly recommend it.

When I stay in Vancouver I like the little quaint hotels and my favorite is the Victorian Hotel on Homer. It's sort of a bed-and-breakfast flavored hotel but you have to book ahead as it's not big and they fill fast. Check for the best deals (often cheaper than the Victorians own website). They also have ONE family room with three beds which we works well when the whole family is with us. They give you a nice breakfast and the service is good. Something happened when I booked though and I made the reservation for March instead of February and the Victorian was full when we arrived leaving us without a room. The nice lady at the Victorian set us up with a room at the Kingsman Bed and Breakfast. The one rule I've learned when a hotel is full and they reserve you a room somewhere else is that other room won't be as good as the one you wanted. Why? Because they will NEVER book you in a hotel that's a better deal then their own or you wouldn't come back! The other room will either be more expensive or won't be as nice. In the case of the Kingsman it was both more expensive and not as nice. It's called Bed and Breakfast and I suppose if you think a man handing you a bagel in the morning is breakfast than the title is fitting. The beds are in very dark depressing hallways and the there's ONE (count it) bathroom/shower on every floor so get up early if you want to be clean. The ONLY nice thing I can say about the Kingsman is it's across the street from Medina Cafe which has long lines in the morning. From the windows of the Kingsman you can keep an eye on the line so you can get quicker. 

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Site maintenance is done

It's been a long month or so.  The Man, the Myth, the Legend has been on the Internet for about 10 years now with 6 million page views (counter says 5 million as I restored from a backup). The current rendition of the site started with Joomla 1.1 in 2005. We then migrated to 1.5 which broke a bunch of things (Gallery2 being the big one). Then we upgraded to 1.6 and 1.7. Another migration took us to Joomla! 2.5 which is where we stayed for years. Joomla 2.5 was end-of-lifed on January 1st so there would be no more security updates forcing us to do the big move to Joomla! 3.4.

Recently we were using various pieces of software that had to be updated:

  • Joomla 2.5
  • Sobi
  • Gallery2/Gallery2 bridge
  • K2 with Disqus comments
  • Docman

The first component I wanted to get rid of was Gallery2 as I was embedding it into Joomla with a bridge. It had a weird single sign-on that sort of worked and felt old and slow. My Gallery2 installation actually pre-dates my Joomla! installation although I don't remember how many years earlier.  During one of the upgrades the bridge stopped working so I had to move to JFusion as my bridge. Then Gallery2 stopped being developed which left me dead in the water for updates. About a year ago Ignite Gallery became good enough to migrate to - all 10,000 photos! That process took about a month. 

The next component I wanted to get rid of was K2. K2 handled my blogging features, custom fields (which I wasn't using), Disqus comments, tags and more.  Originally Joomla! didn't have a lot of blogging features so I tried out a bunch of the commercial offerings such as MyBlog and EasyBlog. One or the other refused to update his component because he didn't like the license change with Joomla! 1.6 so I moved to the other. I eventually moved to K2 as it had real ACLs, tags and hierarchical categories which were missing in early Joomla versions. Joomla 2.5 got us the all of those things so I stopped needing K2 but since I had over 500 articles written in it  I was stuck. I recently found a migration plugin that would copy all of my K2 articles to Joomla Articles. It mostly worked.

Docman got replaced with PhocaDownloads which I'm reasonably happy with.

Sobi which I liked got replaced with Sobi2 because they stopped developing the original. Sobi2 has issues from what I can see.


I'm now running on:

  • Joomla! 3.4.x
  • Native Joomla Articles
  • PhocaDownloads
  • Sobi2 (for reviews/recipes)
  • Disqus plugin


While I was cleaning things up I went through the database and got rid of any tables no longer needed. My database went from 252 tables to 125! Even more amazing the database size went from 160 MB to 20 MB. I've also cleaned up templates, graphics, CSS files, and found replacements for modules and plugins associated with the software above. K2 had it's fingers in everything so it took a while to get rid of it. 

I have not spent this amount of time in one spot on this website in 10 years! So far I'm happy with it and you can expect more articles in short succession as I feel OK contributing again. I've just spent the last week optimizing and I'll write another article about that in the future.

Site maintenance causing intermittent availability

We've been doing massive restructuring of the hardware that underlies The Man, The Myth, The Legend.  I'll outline the changes in a later post when I'm done but you'll probably notice that the site has been down multiple times and there's probably a few more reboots to go before I'm done. I have several articles waiting to go up but have been holding off until the move was finished. Later in the month I'm moving more hardware out from under the site but due to the changes I've made this week that will entail one outage and no more (in theory). 

Oh, and there's a lot of stuff that just isn't working right. Feeds are messed up, the "Green Guy" logo is missing, blocks not configured right etc.. I'm putting it all back together as I get time.

Stay tuned!