Posts from 04/2008
BU will be busy spreading American consumerism across Europe until April 15th. Regular updates will resume on April 21, although the occasional "on-the-road" post may appear in this space from a seedy Internet cafe, thanks to the PHP magic of Mike (of Mike and Chompy).
In the meantime, feel free to check the News Archives for your daily fix, or visit one of the wonderful blogs in the left sidebar. Au revoir!
It's Day Three, and the final day in London! We've seen every museum, church, pub, and tube station around and will be leaving in the morning for Paris.
We have plenty of stories to tell, like the meeting with the sweatpants-wearing lipstick-wearing Brit who was obsessed with the Lacquer Box at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and our world-premiere interview with people in Hyde Park.
Hope everyone is having fun at work!
Day 8 and we are in Carcassonne which is excellent. It started snowing on the last day in Paris so we gave a big thumbs down to Versailles and fled for the southern coast a day early. So far our decision was highly successful.
Tomorrow we leave for Collioure and then on to Barcelona!
8:35 AM: Waking up in our unexpectedly posh hotel room.
9:44 AM: Making the half mile walk to the train station in our little suburb (because all the hotels in the Old City were booked up).
10:29 AM: Wandering down the Ramblas, watching all the street performers and living statues.
11:00 AM: Barcelona looks a lot like California. Now I know why Sydney Bristow went to Spain all the time -- it was easy to film.
11:37 AM: Looking up at the main Cathedral, which was closed for renovations (a recurring theme in much of the city).
12:07 PM: Eating tapas for lunch. Our trip mascot, Pierre the French Poodle, tries out the octopus salad.
12:44 PM: In the Boquiera marketplace where you could see fresh fish and meat in various states of bloody hacking.
2:07 PM: At the Sagrada Familia, which is Catalon for "Big Ass Unfinished Church of Ridiculous Height"
4:38 PM: In Parc Guell, enjoying the sunny afternoon.
5:08 PM: From the top of the Parc, we had a panoramic view of the city. This particular building is covered in LED lights and lights up in millions of colour combinations at night. The guidebooks used every word to describe it except for the obvious ones.
7:31 PM: Back in the Old City, we had seafood paella for dinner and multiple Damms.
9:18 PM: Tourist Tip: No matter which country you're in, you can always pee for free at Burger King.
|My Old 12 of 12s|
Monday, March 31, 2008
With the cats successfully sent off to grandma's house and our ridiculously tiny bags packed, we were dropped off at Dulles by Anna around 4 PM on Monday the 31st. After successfully navigating the always-flustering security checkpoints, we arrived in Concourse D which was chock full of every brand name store possible, from Border's to Starbucks. Travelling 100 yards down the concourse brought us to exact duplicates of these stores, making me worry for a moment that we had actually circumnavigated the globe in a looping terminal straight out of an Infocom game.
This was my first international flight, a nonstop affair from DC to London in 8 hours, and I was surprised by how many gadgets were available. We flew United, and each seat had a video monitor in the headrest where you could choose from the movies of the month (Juno, Dan in Real Life, and Enchanted), several TV shows (like House or King of the Hill), or a GPS view of where the airplane was at all times, how fast it was going, and how could it was outside (-72 F).
I spent most of the trip enthralled with the mapping feature while listening to the built-in XM Radio. Dinner consisted of some tasty bacon-flavoured green beans and some nasty chicken squares which tasted like damp hackeysacks (we resolved to get the Pasta option on the return flight). Because we had a night flight, we tried to get some sleep so we could tackle London at full strength, but this was only partially successful. I probably managed to sleep until Greenland after which I woke up with an uncomfortable crick in my neck, tired enough to confuse the light on the end of the wing with the Moon. Gone are the days where I could fit my entire body into a fetal upright position and stay comfortable, not to mention that I was sharing the row with Rebecca who is a giant and takes up at least four seats with her shoes alone. Luckily, the plane wasn't too crowded, so we had three seats for the two of us.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
My first view of the UK came at dawn, with endless rows of identical houses and really skinny backyards. Everyone was driving on the left side of the road, proof that this was a real phenomenon, and not just some myth made up to make American left-handers feel better about themselves. We
disembarked deplaned around 7 AM London time (five hours earlier than Virginia) in a chilly rain, and were herded to the Passport Control warehouse where the lines were divided into UK/EU passports and "The Rest of the World" (which had the snide caveat "including the US" attached in italics). Our line queue looked like the entrance to the Superman Tower of Power theme-park ride (before it chopped that girl's feet off) while the EU passport-holder breezed through without a wait.
After an hour wait and copious promises not to import any snakehead fish in our pants, we were dumped into the London Underground, where a helpful Tourist Information official showed us how to use tube tickets and nudged us towards the Piccadilly line train to Cockfosters. Sadly, we never actually visited Cockfosters (or for that matter, East Ham or Tooting Broadway). Despite the oversaturation of ads, I was impressed with how clean, helpful, and efficient the Tube was when compared to the only other Metro I've ridden on in DC. Tube announcements (and London in general) was brimming with charming, almost-apologetic information, like constant admonitions to "mind the gap" in stations where the platform and the train are a few inches higher or lower. In the states, such a situation would never occur, since engineers would be deathly afraid of a lawsuit from someone tripping.
Our Bed & Breakfast was near Victoria Station, and after a little orientation around our Tube exit, we arrived at a cramped but clean building on Eccleston Square recommended by no less than Rick Steves himself. Our rooms wouldn't be ready for a couple hours, so we dropped off some bags and wandered into the city to find breakfast. We ate at the Caramel (a bacon & egg sandwich with a pain au chocolat for me, and an omelette for Rebecca) where we were first introduced to the social norms of picking our own table, and peeing in the basement.
Even though everyone around us spoke English, we were very self-conscious that first day (highly contrasting our return trip to London two weeks later when just HEARING English was a relief). We were also in pound-shock this day -- prices in pounds made perfect sense if the pound were a dollar (for example, a hamburger and fries might be 8 pounds), but the exchange rate was double, so that 8 pound burger was actually costing us 16 dollars. We eventually had to learn that you CANNOT convert the price into dollars in your head or you'll constantly be faced with buyer's remorse or shy away from enjoying your trip. This took about 4 days to learn.
After breakfast, we walked a half mile towards Buckingham Palace to drop in on the Queen. She was out, but we got to experience the Changing of the Guard. Unfortunately, all the prime ogling spots were taking, but I experienced it virtually with the ridiculous zoom on my camera. This picture here was taken from at least 100 yards away from the action, through a fence and over the head of some snotty French middle schoolers on a field trip. From the palace, we wandered through Monument Park, which had a haphazard monument for every event you wouldn't really care about. There may have even been a monument celebrating New Zealand. At this point (1 in the afternoon), jet lag was catching up to us, and we wandered back to the hotel for an afternoon nap.
To Be Continued tomorrow...New children's book for mommy's plastic surgery
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Refreshed after our siesta, we took the Tube to South Kensington, passing a street performer playing "The Lonely Goatherd" on an alto saxophone to a "Best of the Sound of Music" Karaoke CD. We visited the Victoria and Albert Museum near closing time which was uninspiring except for the collection of old musical instruments tucked away in the back. We also power-walked through the rather boring collections of ancient furniture, where we were accosted by a crazy guy in lipsteak and sweat pants who told us that we simply must visit the Lacquer Box because it was brilliantly beautiful. We edged away as quickly as possible, and later encountered him in another room mumbling to himself (we never did find the Lacquer Box).
The museum closed at 5, so our next big adventure was to take one of the big red double-decker buses to Picadilly Circus so we could walk around the more tourist-y areas in the evening. We arrived at Trafalgar Square, home to eight million pigeons and an enterprising Asian who was earning pence by balancing a soccer ball on his head. He was accompanied by a muscle-bound British guy whose job it was to restart the CD whenever the music ran out -- eventually he felt left out of all the attention and did a couple back handsprings to make sure that we noticed him. After this, we proceeded to walk a giant circuit: across the Golden Jubilee bridge over the Thames, past the London Eye, back over the Westminster Bridge, past Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and then back to Trafalgar Square.
Americans are naturally sedentary, so all this walking made us pretty hungry. By now it was almost 9 PM, and some of the restaurants had stopped serving food. We finally ended up at the nonsensically-named "Lord Moon of the Mall" pub (which, incidentally, is also the title of the next Final Fantasy game). I ate sausages and mash with a Guinness, while Rebecca had the cottage pie and a Festival Sampler ale, and we both marvelled at the advertisement for imported Coors Light which was just slightly cheaper than a Guinness. The food was bland and not too tasty -- in fact, the cottage pie made Rebecca nauseous so we headed back to our room.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
After a plain but filling (and free) breakfast of cereal, toast, juice, and coffee at our hotel, we hit the ground running with a trip the the British Library's "Rare Documents" room. While Rebecca geeked out over the first editions of various great works of literature (like Alice in Wonderland and The Pelican Brief), I admired the musical manuscripts. At the far end of the chamber was a computer with one of Mozart's theme sketchbooks digitized, and each fragment in the book was tied to a sound file so you could hear what it sounded like in its draft form. The Library also housed a massive collection of stamps, but stamp collecting is about as useful and interesting as collecting the lids of margarine containers: sure this Country Crock lid might be Calcium-enriched, but at the end of the day, you're still collecting a bunch of useless objects that all look the same.
Our next stop was the inapproriately-named "British Museum" where none of the artifacts actually came from Britain. Every exhibit was well-documented and included justification as to why it was okay to plunder former British colonies of their heritage. We spent several minutes in the Greek wing looking at the Elgin Marbles, a collection of sculptures and bas reliefs depicting various centaurs humping people, and marvelled at the fact that the wee-wees were missing from every single statue. No doubt, somewhere out there is an archaeologist's family whose treasured heirloom is the stone penis of Hermes.
Because it was the off season, many of the wings of the Museum were closed (including the North American wing -- I would have liked to see what they thought of us). We did get to see two special exhibits: one on the history of money, and one called "Life & Dying: Cradle to the Grave" (which I always thought was just a movie starring DMX and Jet Li).
To prevent museum-fatigue so early in the trip, we had a couple pints in North London and relaxed for a bit. I also saw an advertisement for an upcoming run of Spamalot, starring Alan Dale as King Arthur. Alan Dale is also the actor who plays Charles Widmoore in LOST, so it looks like we won't be learning anything new from him for several episodes (at least until the Spamalot run is over).
Enroute to our next stop, the John Soane Museum, we stumbled across a real find that wasn't in any guidebooks: the Hunterian Museum of science and surgery . It was absolutely free and contained thousands of gross things pickled in formaldehyde, from frogs to tumors to gunshot-shattered bones, as well as paintings of rare conditions like Siamese twins and dwarves. After that find, the John Soane Museum was interesting but not amazing -- over the course of his life, he bought one of everything and stuck it in his house until it looked like a museum, and then had it turned into a museum as-is after his death.
The evening was concluded with the traditional Fish and Chips meal at Sea Fresh which turned out about as tasty as the one at Red Robin and came with bonus ice cream. After dinner, we hit the Prince of Wales pub near our hotel where we sat at the bar for a few hours talking with the locals and listening to their novelty-filled accents. We tried the long-pull beers tonight: Taylor, London Pride, John Smith, and Strongbow Cider.
To Be Continued tomorrow...'Calendar Girls' fundraising plan backfires
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Day Three of our adventure began with a bum knee -- my own. It started hurting halfway through day two, but I merely attributed it to being out of practice with walking extended distances (besides, in Warcraft, you can turn on auto-run and forget about it). By today, it was obvious that I had sprained a joint or something in my right knee, even though there was no specific event that triggered it, like a fall down the Wellington Arch or getting kicked by a midget. For the next week and a half or so, I walked in various states of cripply goodness, and on this last day in London, I was forced to walk with my right leg completely straight, no doubt looking like a modern American peglegged pirate and greatly embarassing my travelmate.
However, I refused to let a gimp knee ruin the vacation, so we did even MORE walking than the previous days as a nice F-U to the frailties of the human body. We wandered through a market near the Charing Cross Tube station and then toured the British Transport Museum, which (amazingly) was the first and ONLY tourist attraction we actually paid for in London. This museum was great, detailing the evolution of transportation in London from the city's origins, including boats, horses, carriages, trains, the Tube, and the double-decker buses. It took us about three hours to look at all the exhibits and mess around with the hands-on stuff. We also tried to hit the Theatre Museum, but it had moved to the other end of the city.
After a morning of touring, we had a fresh hand-tossed pizza made by a genuine Italian in the market and then started a new walking tour, crisscrossing the Thames multiple times via the Waterloo Bridge, Blackfriar's Bridge, and the Millenium Pedestrian Bridge. We stumbled into a free showing of David Noton's travel photography in the Oxo Tower, browsed used books in an outdoor used book lot, and took pictures of St. Paul's Cathedral and the London Bridge. We never made it out to the Tower of London, but were quite happy with the things we did see.
In the evening, we went to Hyde Park and wandered around, but the chill meant that few people were out and about. We did get interviewed by a couple of foreign film students who were trying to gauge peoples' first impressions of their countries (Columbia = DRUGS), and then walked back to our neighbourhood near Victoria Station for giant pub burgers at the Marquis of Westminster. Following pints of London Pride and the strains of Morrissey over the radio, we grabbed some newspapers and returned to the hotel for an early night in.
London is inundated with free newspapers and minorities at every Tube station trying to hand out as many as possible. One of the papers that everyone reads is the Metro, a paper that is already slightly famous on this website for the number of funny news links it provides (including these two classics with excellent supporting graphics and captions ). Reading it in London was as exciting as any museum tour, and almost like meeting an old friend for the very first time. After catching up with the current whereabouts of Victoria Beckham (in a mall), and happily reading nothing at all about Obama and Clinton, we hit the sack, ready to tackle our next city.
Friday, April 4, 2008
The next morning, we took the high-speed train from London to Paris in a mere two and a half hours (though we were greatly tantalized by the direct train to Euro Disneyland, complete with a welcoming band in the station playing Disney tunes). Because the train travelled at 186 miles per hour, we didn't see much in the way of scenery, but we did enjoy a swank first-class cabin (if you are over 26, you MUST ride first-class). The train dumped us at Gare du Nord and we immediately took the Metro to our hotel in the 20th district. Having just come from the Tube, the Paris Metro was smelly and crowded, and the tickets were way too tiny and easy to confuse with used tickets. At some of the transfer stations, you easily walk a half mile underground, to the point where it was more efficient to just walk the six blocks above ground rather than try to catch another train.
This was my opportunity to put my high school French to good use (now 13 years outdated), and if they didn't understand me, I figured I could just fall back on Alizee lyrics and maybe do the Alizee/Night Elf dance as a distraction . This was more important in our hotel district, which was off the beaten tourist path, so fewer residents spoke English. We survived our initial move-in though, getting a cozy and clean room by an old-fashioned elevator that can barely fit a single American buttock, and then had giant Greek sandwiches at a little Iranian deli around the corner. Ordering here was much more frantic, but the waitress (who spoke no English at all) took pity on us and made sure we had everything we needed.
With food in our bellies, we decided that the first thing to see in Paris would be the Eiffel Tower. It was an unseasonably warm day, and billions of tourists were there, but we got to the second level after only a thirty minute wait (which seriously made us feel like we were at King's Dominion). The very top floor was closed because of high winds, but we could see plenty from where we were. Paris is pretty impressive from above, except for the ridculously ugly Montparnasse Building which ruins the scenic skyline.
The afternoon was spent having ice cream in the park, getting accosted by all manner of merchants and sketch artists, getting lost on the Metro and ending up on one of the suburban RER trains (it turns out they're pretty much the same as normal Metro trains except the seats are more comfy) and then stumbling into the Latin Quarter. This neighbourhood was a maze of tiny streets and millions of restaraunteurs trying to convince us to eat dinner, with crepe makers, beggars, and all manner of people crowded together.
Later, we got drinks near the Sorbonne, paying far too much for our wine (12 euros for two glasses, when a bottle in a local supermarket costs 2 - 6 euros) and regretting it afterwards. This was one of only two bad deals on the trip though, and it was fun to crowd into a cafe and people-watch.
As night fell, so did the temperature, and our unseasonable warmth vanished for the remainder of our Paris sojourn. For kicks, we decided to take a night tour of Paris from a river boat, and enjoyed the sights in spite of the frigid winds. The French keep the Eiffel Tower lit up all night long which looks mildly corny, but this is exacerbated by the timed glitter effects -- every few minutes, the lights start flickering and blinking like an out of control Las Vegas floor show. When the boat stopped an hour later, we were thoroughly frozen, and returned to our hotel district. We wandered into a local grocery store a bought a bottle of wine, some cheese, some bread, and a corkscrew for a mere 8 euros ($12) total and then retired to our room for a late dinner and a showing of Les Simpsons (5MB WMV).
To Be Continued tomorrow...
Do you have any questions about our trip? Things I've forgotten to mention? Let me know in the Comments section!Porn star unveils campaign weapon
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Although it couldn't be mistaken as the summertime, the first four days of our trip had been fairly nice for April in countries on the same latitude as Maine. This all ended on Day Five, when the damned Norwegians sent a subversive cold front across the area, mixed with clouds and light drizzle. Based on the weather and the amount of logistics it would take to schedule trains to the Palace of Versailles, we decided to skip it, and started today off by making train reservations for the end of our Paris trip. With that taken care of, we hit Ile de la Cit?, the island in the middle of the Seine containing Saint-Chapelle and Notre Dame.
Both were beautiful and very typical of the Parisian atmosphere -- where London was charming and slightly modern, everything about Paris exuded age and foreign history. More important than the churches, though, was the crepe maker in the Latin Quarter where we had a crepe with ham, egg, cheese, and mushrooms. Because prices are slightly higher if you sit down in a shop, we ate ours in front of the building, huddled over it for warmth. The crepe was so delicious that we also shared a second one, filled with nothing but steaming Nutella chocolate spread.
Our next stop was the Catacombs, and a forty minute Metro ride later found us in front of a big FERME POUR TRAVAIL sign -- evidently some of the bones needed repairs or something. By now, we were sick of riding the Metro for hours on end. I almost wanted to take the ORLY? bus for giggles , but instead we decided to wander the neighbourhood in search of something cool and undiscovered (maybe a French Surgery museum?).
Instead of a museum, we stumbled into the Montparnasse Cemetary , miles and miles of dead people in the shadow of the monolithic Montparnasse
Building Pimple. A small sign listed the famous people buried there, including Camille Saint-Saens (lot 13) and Cesar Franck (lot 26), so we decided to try finding their graves for kicks. Unfortunately, the signs neglected to mention that each lot contained hundreds of graves, and after limping around for a bit, I gave up. We took pictures of ourselves pointing at random graves anyhow, so twenty years from now (when everyone has forgotten about it), we can claim that we DID find these famous bodies.
By now we were freezing our derrieres off, so we slipped into the cheapest place possible to warm up: the local MacDo. For the cost of a coffee (and a frite petite) we got an hour of warmth and the secret code to punch into the keypad-protected bathrooms. MacDonald's has established a pretty big foothold in Europe -- we saw 3 in the small parts of Paris we visited, and 2 on the same road in Barcelona. There were also Burger Kings and KFC's but (sadly) no Popeyes.
From our cozy booth in the back, we worked out a new plan for the afternoon involving the Sacre-Coeur church on the north side of town. This beautiful church had one point against it -- it required me to hobble up one hundred yards of steps to reach. On the plus side, it was nestled right next to Paris' red-light district, so if we accidentally got lost, I might see some boobies. After admiring the church inside and out, we wandered through the neighbourhood and warmed up with another chocolate crepe.
The cold essentially wiped us out, so we went home to the Hotel Charma for another wine/bread/cheese dinner. This time we tried a local Brie which was excellent.
Sunday, April 6, 2008
It was another cold and windy day during which I mastered the art of being a cripple without looking like a giant sashaying retard. Despite the cold, we were excited because many museums and exhibits are free on the first Sunday of the month, and we are genetically cheap people.
Our first stop for the day was going to be the Tour of the Sewers, something which Paris has always been famous for. Enroute, we passed a Marathon being run through the city (and two marathon runners on the Metro who were blatantly cheating), the Palace of Tokyo (which looked very Japanese, especially with the giant Maglev car on top), and the Mus?e du quais Branly which I only remembered because it's pronounced like French dukee (poop).
The Sewer Tour took us on a winding course through actual sewers, crossing shaking metal platforms over goopy brown stormwater and past mock terrariums with fake sewer rats. The actual information was in both English and French and was quite interesting, though Rebecca had her shirt covering her nose by the halfway point. At the end, they had a short video about the Paris Night Shift, a group of people you can call 24 hours a day when you lose something in a sewer hole (one lady dropped her car keys in a storm drain, and another guy flushed a necklace down the toilet). In the gift shop, you could buy a giant stuffed sewer rat -- I almost bought it for Ella because it would be funny and subversive for her to love a sewer rat, but it was 14 euros ($21).
The next stop was the Rodin Museum, which was interesting enough, but I'm glad we went on the day it was free. The big Thinker sculpture was roped off with a fifty yard radius, so we couldn't take any silly Thinking pictures. Seeing so many sculptures did make us hungry though, but there are no quick eateries near the place. What should have been a quick search for a restaurant took us a mile away back into the Latin Quarter, past a shop that sells Assouline and a large police-escorted group of roller skaters skating for some disease.
We ended up eating "Cheesy English" sandwiches at a sandwich shop called Cosi (no relation to the American one), and then enjoyed the ambience of the Ile de Saint Louis, a quiet mostly-tourist-free island of shops and houses near the Notre Dame (it also featured an accordian player whose shtick was pretending to be headless).
Our last stop in Paris was going to be a walk up the Champs-Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe. We were going to time it so we could be on top as the sun set, but the frigid temperatures convinced us that it would be just as good at 5 PM as it might have been at 9. And, instead of walking the full length of the road from the Louvre, we decided to pop out of the Metro about four blocks away from it.
The Arc was definitely an impressive site, surrounded by a giant traffic circle and bisected by 12 separate avenues. Seven Corners in Falls Church, Virginia has nothing on this place -- we'll have to build a Thirteen Corners just to one-up it. Unfortunately, we discovered that Rick Steves lied when he said that going up the Arc was free on the first Sunday, so we just admired it from below instead of paying what seemed to be an exorbitant price.
After this, we felt we had seen and enoyed most of the parts of Paris that we would enjoy (we're not big art museum fans) and were getting tired of the constant crowds, the cold, and the way that taking the Metro always felt like an hour-long scavenger hunt. We returned to our lovely Hotel on the outskirts of town and made one last trip to our grocery store for tomorrow's breakfast, and then packed our bags and bundled up for the night. Tomorrow, we would flee the big cities and enjoy the (hopefully) moderate temperatures in the south of France!
To Be Continued tomorrow...
I have also posted all the pictures from London and Paris -- you can view them here . Some of them have already made an appearance on Facebook, but there are plenty of new ones!
Happy Birthday Andrea and Philip!Rumours of penis thefts spur lynchings
Monday, April 7, 2008
Throughout the trip, we learned a great deal about the conversion between Celsius and Farenheit. For example, 28 C = 82 F and 20 C is room temperature. The average temperature in London was around 12 C, and the average temperature in Paris was 7 C. However, we did not need to pass our SATs to know that -2 C is very cold. We woke up early (around 6) on Monday to make a train, and were greeted by a cold, slimy, sleet & snow mixture with wind gusts up to a million kilometers per hour (evidently I need work on my distance conversions). It was the perfect type of day to spend in a warm train, and we checked off Day 1 of 5 in our Eurail Saver Pass. This pass lets you travel for free on five days out of two months as long as you travel with a friend. Because of our changed itinerary, we only ended up using 3 days total, but the convenience factor was still very nice.
One of the things that set Paris apart from London was the prevalence of graffiti in every subway and train tunnel. This did not change as we went further south -- if anything, we saw MORE graffiti everywhere. The trains also travelled through the worst-looking parts of the cities we passed through (Tolouse and Bordeaux, for example) but it's as if no one seemed to care. If you were to walk through a portion of D.C. with as many tags on the walls as Toulouse, you might fear for your lives, but in France, you eventually just accept it as part of the landscape.
Our train encountered multiple delays, so that we didn't arrive in Carcassonne until around 5. By then, we were tired of trains and the ridiculously edgy X-files sound effect they used for station announcements . We received a mail-in rebate form from the train company for the delays, but all the forms were in French, and it didn't seem like a worthwhile use of our time.
Dumped in Carcassonne, we immediately purchased a 3 euro ($4.50) map of the city from the magazine stand in the station, only to walk outside and discover a Tourism Kiosk right across the canal (this was rip-off #2 of the trip). In the kiosk, we received a map of the entire city (which was only a few square miles), restaurants, hotels, and all their prices and locations. We used this guide to create a list of cheap hotels and started walking through the city.
We ended up at the Hotel Central, where 40 euros scored us an excellent spacious room with a shower and sink (bathroom down the hall). After being on the train all day, stumbling into this city and finding this hotel felt like winning the lottery -- it was very central (as advertised), inexpensive, and charmingly decorated. Hoping to tell all my readers about our trip so far, I asked the desk clerk where the nearest Internet Cafe was (every hotel we stayed in had Wi-Fi, but I don't have a laptop). She gave me directions and told me to look for the Seabird Cafe. It wasn't until the next day that I realized that that's how you pronounce "Cyber".
With our room straightened out, we wandered toward the edge of the city and found a gigantic walled city looming on the skyline above us. With no other tourists around, we had our pick of restaurants, and ate at the Il Ponte Vecchio beneath the walls. This was a tiny Italian restaurant with a resident cat named Nuom who sat with us during dinner and the strains of Michael Ball singing American showtunes playing over the speakers (I suspect the workers put it on just for us). The food was delicious although it was a little weird to be eating all alone in a restaurant. After dinner, we took a stroll through the grounds of the walled city (which many people still live and work in) and walked along the outer walls, enjoying the novelty of being in a castle.
To close out the evening, we had wine and strawberries in our hotel room and watched a French reality show called C'est du propre where two French ladies teach a slob how to clean his apartment.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
We were so enamoured with Carcasonne that we decided to stay one more night here. After reserving a train for the following day, we wandered along the canal and through the lower city. Carcassonne had two parts -- the walled city on the hill, and then the trade city down below (where we stayed). The trade city seemed like a microcosm of Paris, allowing us to do the parts we enjoyed the most (wandering around and exploring neighbourhoods) all compressed into a square mile. Roads through the city were barely one lane wide, and pedestrians were everywhere. They had a McDonald's by the train station, but otherwise they were free of American culture. Every shop seemed to have dogs and cats wandering freely inside, although most of the dogs were of the tiny kickable variety.
For lunch we ate (alone) at the Lotus d'Or, a Chinese restaurant decorated with covers from the Rin Tin Tin comic book series. The food was delicious, and we learned that Chinese people in France speak much better French than Chinese people in America speak English. However, we did not receive two free eggrolls with our meal.
A slight misunderstanding meant that we did not get our 1/2 bottle of wine (free with the meal) until after we had finished the food, but that made for some fun tipsy wanderings in the city during the afternoon. By 2, we had exhausted the possibilities of the lower city and returned to the walled city, marveling that it must be really neat to be a resident who wakes up every day and sees a castle out the window.
In the afternoon, we took the tour of the main castle, explored the chapel, had a chocolate eclair, and bought a white French poodle named Pierre. I also ogled the cool medieval weaponry sold in the gift shops, but reasoned that we probably would not be allowed to keep it in our carry-on bags. A lone fellow with a pan flute serenaded us as we left the walled city and walked along the banks of the Aude River. Apparently, there was a military school somewhere in town, as we passed three or four squads of young ROTC-like trainees with camouflage on their faces, heading purposely towards the castle. We were undecided as to whether they were going to storm it or defend it though.
As night fell, we walked through the last unexplored sections of the lower city, but found nothing worth seeing. It felt like we had spent the perfect amount of time here -- a night and a day will let you see everything there is to see and not get bored. The only thing we missed out on was the Parc Australien which apparently had baby kangaroos, but it was a couple miles outside the city and required a car to get to. Carcassonne is definitely a must-see site if you ever come to France though!
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
On Wednesday, we were up bright and early to catch the train to Collioure. Because so many people take the train, ticket-checking was lax and we totally could have hopped on for free without anyone knowing. We arrived in Collioure around 10 AM, after driving through the graffiti-filled Perpignan. On an unrelated note, you poop a lot more in Europe than the States, so from this point on, I referred to the act of taking a dump as the more polite "going to Poopignan".
To Be Continued on Monday...
You can view the Carcassonne pictures here .Judge can't understand the Harry Potter books
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Collioure is a small town on the Mediterranean Sea that's nearly invisible on most tourist maps. Rick Steves devotes a few sentences to it in one of his guidebooks, and we thought that a town off the beaten path might be a nice "vacation within a vacation" at the 2/3rds mark of our trip. At first glance, fresh off the train, it was just a deathly silent tiny town with no vistas of interest. As we walked down the single street from the station, though, this perception changed.
First, we hit the market square where all manner of goods were being sold to the locals, including a stand selling nothing but spices and sweet-smelling herbs. This spilled out next to a long ancient drainage canal filled with ducks that led us to a beautiful Mediterranean beach with a scenic church and at least three abandoned fortresses (from the days when the border to Spain was here). Throughout our stay, it felt like we were the only tourists around, able to experience a closer approximation of normal French life while taking eight million pictures of the scenic landscape.
Using the excellent guide from the Tourism Office, we found a hotel room with a balcony, toilet, sink, shower, AND TV for a killer rate, run by a cute little family (without a word of English spoken) and in a central part of town. It was too early for lunch, so we wandered through the tight alleys of shops and bought hand-churned cones of ice cream (Straciatella for me and Snickers for Rebecca). When the lunch hour finally rolled around, we ordered a hand-tossed pizza and ate it next to the bay.
After lunch, we walked the grounds of an abandoned fort that's nestled in the center of the town and then took a quick siesta to make up for our early train. The weather was still warm and walking-friendly when we woke up, so we picked a random street and wandered out of town into a neighbourhood that Rebecca said reminded her greatly of California. Almost every family owned a cat, and one family even had a couple donkeys in a roped up area near the creek trail. We spent a good couple hours just wandering through the area and saying "bonjour" to friendly locals.
In the evening, we returned to the central town and had crepes with Nutella and Grand Marnier, an 80 proof alcohol. The crepe stand was actually just a front for selling Grand Marnier, because you could buy entire bottles there, and take free recipe cards outline all the things to sprinkle Grand Marnier on. We then treated ourselves to a full meal at a real restaurant (noodles with calamari for me, and beef with a salad for Rebecca).
After dinner, we wandered back to the beach where a church, a chapel, and a lighthouse were all constructed in close proximity to the sea wall. Scenes like this were really the best part of our trip -- being able to experience ancient and awe-inspiring settings nestled into the rhythms of everyday life. On an unrelated note for Rob, this may be the first time I've ever been able to use the word "everyday" in a blog post rather than "every day".
The day ended (as all days should) with wine on the balcony of our hotel room.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
The farther south you go, the smaller the breakfasts get -- Londoners celebrate the start of a new day with eighty pounds of spam, while breakfast in Spain is nonexistant since everyone is still asleep. French breakfasts were weak sauce, and we ultimately ended up eating a Quiche Lorraine, two oranges, and a bag of chips. We ate breakfast, did a load of laundry in our sink (just the sweaty inner stuff), and then wandered south into the unexplored part of town. We skipped some stones and invaded some private beach property, and then decided to take our books to the beach for some sun and intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in at this point and chased us to the local cafe where we warmed up and had drinks.
After a time, the clouds disappeared, and we decided to hike up to a peculiar gaudy arch overlooking the town (lower circle on the picture to the left). It turned out to be another chapel, and from there we decided to hit the quaint windmill (Moulin de Collioure) higher up in the treeline (the second circle). By this point, I was feeling ambitious so we decided to hike up to the fortress on top of the mountain, or at least as far as I could go until my bum knee collapsed into a quivering blob of gelatin. This hike included a brief rock scramble, but we successfully made it all the way to the top. Unfortunately, the fort was private property, but we found a scenic rock shelf and ate oranges while watching the fog roll in over the town below.
We knew it was time to hike back down when a bus full of tourists suddenly pulled up next to the fort and all manner of amateur photographers swarmed our private little party. After returning to the town, we went to the hotel for another siesta with the TV on.
There were two French commercials that stood out in my mind -- the first was for a detergent called Colon 101 where the narrator announced that there were 101 uses for COLON. The second had a cartoon girl skipping through a wonderful world singing, "In my world, there is no cancer." The commercial ends when the girl's world explodes and is replaced by a message that essentially said, "Cancer is everywhere. Wake up to the real world." I drifted off during this amazing entertainment, but Rebecca skipped siesta to watch a show in Spanish about the mating habits of zebras (to practice her Spanish for the next leg of our trip).
Our last evening in Collioure was spent eating gigantic "American" sandwiches under a playground setup, the only dry ground after an intense but brief rainstorm, and then drinking some more wine on the balcony while watching the locals come and go below.
To Be Continued tomorrow...
You can view the Collioure pictures here .Songbird gets its revenge
Friday, April 11, 2008
Friday was a cold and rainy day, once again the perfect time to be on a train. After some more quiches, we bundled onto a 10:35 Regional train (a designation which means that the train will stop in every single backwater town along the way to Barcelona, and not arrive there until around 3 PM.
Because this was the first big travel weekend of the travel season, it was much harder to find an affordable hotel in downtown Barcelona. After several "sorry, we're full" emails before our trip, we finally scored a last-minute reservation at the Husa Via Barcelona in a suburb several miles from downtown. It was so last minute that when we printed maps of all our hotels, we didn't realize that the printer had run out of paper before Barcelona. To make matters worse, no one in the Tourism Booth at the train station had ever heard of it, and everyone spoke Catalon instead of proper Spanish.
We tackled this problem head on by just taking the Metro out to the suburb, Saint Joan Despi, and asking people in the city. After two or three miles of walking around the entire city based on faulty directions from a local who was either clueless or vindicative, we found a swank hotel with a helpful clerk who had a map of the city and circled our hotel. So, we spent the first afternoon in Spain on a complete walking tour of our entire suburb, which was fairly normal, and much more modern than France.
To make up for this detour, our cheap hotel turned out to be a super-swank chain -- the type that rich, retired Americans probably go to when they want to experience Spain without getting dirty. The rooms were huge, included satellite TV and a bidet, and surpassed anything the Mariott corporation might have thrown at us. To relax after our long hike with all our bags on us (thank goodness for packing light), we opted to stay in the suburbs this evening rather than go into Barcelona proper.
We wandered through several fun markets and shops in search of dinner and wine to take back to our plush accomodations, but the only wine available here came in tiny boxes. It tasted just fine though, and after exploiting the giant bath tub for cleanliness' sake, we were soon asleep while it rained all night long.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
Dumped out at the Placa Catalunya, we wandered down Las Ramblas -- the wide market-y thoroughfare that runs for two miles out to the sea. The clusters of merchants on this stretch are grouped into categories, starting with pets for sale, followed by street performers dressed up as statues, flowers, and ending with artists. We also narrowly avoided an overweight middle-aged clown who tried to hug us and may have been a pedophile.
After some rambling, we ducked into one of the many narrow allies off the Ramblas and made our way to the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia, Barcelona's star church which turned out to be closed for renovations. While the construction was in progress, the entire facade of the church was covered with a gigantic silk screen that showed the church as it was supposed to appear (similar in design to those T-shirts with the naked lady bodies printed on the front). Walking through the area was enjoyable despite the prevalence of modern stores, and a variety of street musicians could be found everywhere. Some played strange UFO-shaped instruments that seemed like convex steel drums.
For lunch we found a great deal on tapas and sangria at La Porta Fermissa. I was a little disappointed by tapas, since I was expecting a particular delicacy like crepes or shepherd's pie. Instead, I found that tapas just meant "snacks" and could be anything from chicken wings to tuna omelettes. After getting over my lexiconal disappointment, I found the food to be quite tasty anyhow, even the cold octopus salad.
After lunch we did several more miles of walking -- we probably should have taken the Metro, but it was a beautiful day. We walked up to see the Casa Battlo and the Casa Mila, two buildings built by the famed architect, Gaudi. The latter had long lines, so we decided to come back later. Next we walked to the Sagrada Familia, which is Catalon for "Big-Assed Incomplete Church of Ridiculous Height" and took the tour. At first glance, it's pretty awe-inspiring, but when you get inside and learn that it's only 60% of its final height (and that there will be a giant cross the size of a zeppelin on top), it's just plain silly.
Big-assed church was followed by ice cream in the park, and then a Metro ride to Parc Guell overlooking the city from the west. The park was a very pleasant location, although a bit underwhelming since we expected there to be Gaudi sculptures all over the park, rather than just the central pavilion. We got to listen to a digeridoo band, a lazy horrible trumpet player sitting on a bench, and a violinist playing Carmen to a karaoke CD. After reaching the highest point in the park, we also took a picture of Barcelona's penis building, which is covered in LED lights that light up a million different ways.
We returned to the Ramblas for a dinner of paella and beers, and then picked up some groceries at a modern mega-mart across the street. The store was about to close and the crowds inside were ridiculous -- we almost expected to encounter a hurricane based on how bare the shelves were and how long it took us to check out. After a quick stop in Burger King for free toilet usage, we took our forty minute train back to Saint Joan Despi. The walk back to Husa was slightly seedy, but we were accompanied by several other train-patrons in the worst parts near the station. We arrived home around midnight and stumbled into bed.
Sunday, April 13, 2008
After getting Rebecca a coffee so she would stop falling asleep everywhere, we got in line for the Casa Mila, one of Gaudi's apartment buildings containing a mock 1920s apartment and several levels of museum exhibits. The tour was a fun affair, although we made the mistake of taking the stairs to the top rather than waiting in line for the lift. From the outside, this building most closely resembled an Oompa-Loompa hut, and the chimney decorations on the roof looked like stormtrooper heads on pikes.
On the ground floor was a special exhibit on Zora Music, which I thought would be fun and musical, but Zora Music turned out to be a Holocaust survivor who mainly drew piles of dead bodies stacked up (five hallways full of them).
We passed a bass trumpeter playing Nesse Dorma in the Metro, and then rode to Barceloneta (the seaside, rougher area of Barcelona). We had sandwiches on a real live Mediterranean beach (complete with bikini-clad volleyball players despite the chilly wind) and then walked along the boardwalk listening to accordian players and mariachi combos. Seeing a crowd in the distance, we ambled over and found the musical group, GADJO, performing a free concert. Their music was quirky (a mix of accordian, guitar, sousaphone, bass, drums, and various swappable woodwinds that channeled The Cardigans, 586, and the soundtrack from Quest for Glory IV) and we even purchased one of their CDs to listen to back home.
By this point in the trip, all the churches were running together. However, the Chocolate Museum was closed on Sundays, so we drank wine in the courtyard of Santa Maria del Mar and then wandered inside after services were over. It was pretty enough, but no Sacre-Coeur. For dinner, we had more paella and sangria, and then took the Metro to Montjuic to see the dazzling fountain/lights show that everyone raves about. Sadly, April 13 is still considered to be off-season, during which the show only occurs on Fridays and Saturdays.
To Be Continued tomorrow...
You can view the Barcelona pictures here .Cat Lovers appreciate soul mate in Vatican
Monday, April 14, 2008
Most of Monday was reserved for travel. Since we had a 4:35 flight back to London, we woke up late and went straight to the airport, loitering as much as possible but preferring to get there and wait, rather than get held up somewhere out of our control. Our budget-balancing was so immaculate (a.k.a. lucky) that we had just enough euros remaining for a small but filling meal at an airport eatery. We even had enough cents leftover to buy ketchup packets (20 cents each), but did NOT, solely on principle.
In the airport terminal, we met an American who had been stationed in Iraq for years, and was on his way back after a Spain vacation with his wife (who had already gone back to the States). We then boarded our own plane, which had a thirty minute delay, during which they piped really horrible jazz through the cabin on an 8 minute loop. Picture 105.9 Smooth Jazz mixed with foreign pop stars phonetically singing English and then add some Chick Corea and you've got a good approximation.
The flight itself was quick, and we breezed through Customs in mere minutes. Upon returning to London, we felt an immense sense of relief and familiarity. When we had first visited two weeks earlier, we were very aware that we were Americans, and felt like everything was foreign. It was intimidating to do anything at all for the first time. Now, we were just glad that everyone spoke our language and we didn't have to constantly work to figure out how to navigate or survive. Returning to London for a day before going home was definitely a good way to ease back into the rhythms of the US.
To the warm, cheery sounds of "Mind the gap between the train and the platform", we made our way to Earl's Court, a zone of London chock full of restaurants and eateries just outside Central London. We checked into the EasyHotel, an online hotel chain that gives you ridiculously cheap rates for a room that just barely has enough room for a bed. The bathroom is a futuristic pod with a shower and a toilet sharing the same space (so you can poop and wash at the same time, apparently). For an extended stay, it would get old really fast, but for a single night between our flights, it was novel and perfect.
We had pints and dinner in the Earl's Court Pub down the street, where we struck up a conversation with a jolly Brit while waiting for a table to clear. To celebrate the final night of vacation, I had a delicious fish and chips meal and three pints of some delicious porter whose name I cannot recall. The pub was friendly, with a reasonably old clientele, but a sign in the bathroom said "ABSOLUTELY NO DRUGS. WE ARE WATCHING YOU", and a town bylaw was posted at the door preventing people from taking their pints outside.
We also noticed that the condom machines in London are ridiculous -- a bloke could buy a single condom from the dispenser for 5 pounds ($10), which is either an ingenious way to make oen-night stands meaningful, or a way to promote unprotected sex. On the conspiracy side of the aisle, there was a condom machine in the womens' bathroom too, offering condoms for half the price.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
The EasyHotel was quirky, but it was also freezing cold because there were no climate controls in the room. We survived the night, but winter stays would probably be much worse.
For breakfast, we went to Benjy's diner, and savoured the hearty English breakfasts. I ordered the Builder, a massive platter including four pieces of toast, two sausages, baked beans, two over easy eggs, a gross cooked tomato, and a heaping handful of French fries for less than the price of a condom. I couldn't even finish the whole meal. Afterwards, we wandered around South Kensington looking for free paper vendors so we could have some reading material during our wait for a plane. We eventually picked up copies of our old friend, Metro, in the Tube station.
Back at Heathrow, we had a nice sum of pounds remaining, and reasoned that it would be more effective to spend them than exchange them. I purchased a paperback copy of John Grisham's The Appeal which hasn't been released in the States yet and finished it on the plane ride back (typical Grisham, slightly better than usual, better than his crappy non-lawyer fiction and not as good as his early work). We also stocked up on sandwiches and finger foods so we wouldn't have to rely on horrible airline food for dinner. When we finally boarded the plane a couple hours later, we were as prepared as we'd every be. We got nice seats in the front of the Economy section, giggled whenever they said "DUTY FREE", and listened to XM Radio all the way home.
Arriving home at Dulles, we were greeting by the ridiculous Customs area. Giant banners give welcome, and widescreeen TVs constantly broadcast images of everyday American life, such as a bear catching a fish in its mouth, cowboys riding across the mesa, and Indians doing tribal dances. In addition, strangely peppy and uplifting symphonic music loops loudly in the background. Had I not written a high school marching band show to this music in 1999, I would not have recognized it as the theme song from the Walt Disney World Millenium Celebration (829KB MP3). Walt Disney is apparently one other foundation of American society. Incidentally, this song, with it's shifting meters, was a bitch to write a show for. The band stood still a lot. They also made Mickey Mouse's face at one point, but if I can be honest about their skills, it probably looked like a hippie fetus.
A half hour later, Anna picked us up at the airport and we returned to the comfort of Chateauri!. And the next morning, Pierre the French Poodle was adopted by a happy new owner!
So now that we are back in the US at this point in the narrative, what could be left to talk about? Well, no BU-approved trip would be complete without a Wrap-Up day (tomorrow) or a List Day (Friday). Do you have any questions you would like answered? Post them in the comments section!
To Be Continued tomorrow...You may now kick the bride
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