Sunday, August 1, 2010

Paris From the Underground and Beyond

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

Today was our first day out exploring the center of Paris. We decided to head first for the Catacombs. Upon our arrival at the Catacombs there was of course a cue around the block. It was about then that we decided that lines were something we would probably have to get accustomed to in Paris, as we have not had to wait in line for anything really up until our arrival in Paris. Luckily we were able to strike up conversations with some people adjacent to us in line which really helped to pass the time. Before we knew it we were making our way down into the Catacombs. The Catacombs are one of three of Paris's underground cemeteries, and consists of 1.6 kilometers of winding tunnels which are stacked floor to ceiling with the bones and skulls of millions of Parisians. While a bit bizarre, the site was definitely worth the weight.

After finishing our tour of the catacombs, we decided to walk to the Pantheon/Luxembourg Gardens. Unfortunately the weather was less than desirable and began to spit on us, but the skies cleared up just in time for us to arrive at the Pantheon, for a few photos. We decided not to go into the Pantheon, so we continued on from there to the Luxembourg Gardens/Palace which we strolled through on our way to the St-Germain Des Pres Church, Paris's oldest church, built in the 11th century. After touring the Church we made our way back to the hotel before heading out for dinner near our hotel. Tomorrow we head to the Loire Valley!

A Day in the Life of Royalty

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

We woke up this morning and left our hotel with the plan to take the 9:21 a.m. train to Blois in the Loire Valley. We had allowed ourselves approximately one hour to find our way from the hotel to the Austerlitz train station where there are frequent trains to Blois. We had planned a route via metro to the train station and ran into some unexpected troubles when switching trains, the line we had planned to take to the station was closed for construction. We were instructed to take a bus to the train station, which obviously took longer than the time we had alotted. We arrived at the train station just a few minutes before the train left, but but the time we figured out where we needed to go at the train station it was too late. We decided not to take the next train to Blois as if we had we wouldn't have arrived in Blois until nearly 1:00 in the afternoon, so instead we pre-purchased tickets to/from Blois for this Saturday and decided we would head to Versailles today.

Oddly enough to get to Versailles we had to take the exact same bus back the the metro station we had come from and catch a train to Versailles from there. Luckily Tim thought to ask if there was any discount for Eurail pass holders, and sure enough, they told us that the train to Versailles was free for Eurail pass holders. The train to Versailles took just under an hour, so we arrived some time around 11:00 in the morning and made the short walk from the train station to the Chateau.

Once at the Chateau we had to cue up on line to purchase tickets, then we had to cue up again to get into the Palace, then to use the restroom, and finally to get our audio guides. Versailles was pretty amazing, a kind of luxury that cannot be compared to any modern day luxury, but it was ruined a bit by the crowds. One could hardly move through the rooms and had to push your way up to the front to get any photographs. We pushed our way through the elaborate rooms, the Hall of Mirrors by far being my favorite, before we made our way to the take away cafe to pick up some sandwiches to share for lunch.

After lunch we made our way through just a small footprint of the expansive gardens surrounding the Chateau of Versailles, before walking back to the train station.

Once back in Montmartre we went back to the hotel for a rest before we headed out in the direction of the Place du Tertre, a square lined with restaurants/cafes and artists to grab a bite to eat. We loved the Place du Tertre and Montmartre in general. It had a small quaint feel even though it is in one of the larger cities in Europe.

After dinner we headed back to our hotel, tomorrow we switch hotels, as we could not get a discounted rate at the Montmartre hotel for the entire duration of our stay in Paris and plan to spend the day exploring more of Paris.

A Lazy Day in Paris

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

We had an early start this morning as our flight to Paris departed Madrid at about twenty past seven. Although we have really enjoyed Spain and are sad to be leaving it behind us, we are looking forward to Paris and the last few days of our trip. It is hard to believe that we are headed to Paris and nearing the end of our trip, it has been an amazing couple of months!

We arrived in Paris around half past 9:00 this morning. I had written down instructions for how to get from the airport to the area we are staying before we left so we arrived with some idea of where we needed to go, which is always helpful. After locating the correct train we got in line to purchase tickets, after seeing the people in front of us pay 16 Euro for two tickets to Paris I decided to double check our Eurail discounts to make sure we didn't have one on any public transportation in Paris, and sure enough our pass allowed for us to have free travel from the Airport to the Gare du Nord, one of Paris's main train stations. So we got a pass and hopped on the train. It was about a 30-40 minute train ride to the Gare du Nord where we switched trains and hopped on a metro line that took us to Montmartre. Once off the metro in Montmartre we had to find our way to the hotel from there, as that was where my instructions ended. I had the address and went into a restaurant to inquire if they could point us in the right direction, unfortunately the individual did not speak much English and was not familiar with the street. So we picked a direction and started walking. Shortly thereafter we came across a hotel and ducked in as I was certain they would know where our hotel was, and sure enough they did, and they even printed us off directions and a map. After getting directions we were at our hotel in just over 5 minutes. Luckily the hotel had a room ready so we didn't have to store our bags and we were able to go and have a much needed rest.

Perhaps because we have been traveling for nearly two months or perhaps because we had been up since five o'clock this morning, but neither Tim nor I felt like doing much, so we decided to rest for a while and maybe just explore the area around our hotel, and not go into the center of Paris today. This turned out to be a great use of our time, as I had not realized that where we were staying, Montmartre, was in fact a major tourist destination in Paris, so after a brief rest we headed out. We walked by cafes and restaurants before finally selecting a place for lunch. Our first lunch in Paris, and it was a major success, we shared the best baguette either of us have ever had! After lunch we continued through the darling streets of Montmartre towards the butte of Montmartre. Once we reached the butte of Montmartre, we climbed to the top to see the spectacular views of Paris and tour the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. After a quick peak inside the Basilica we made our way back down the Sacre Coeur and over to the Moulin Rouge before heading back to our hotel for another rest.

A little later we walked back towards the metro station where we had arrived and had dinner at a restaurant called Indiana Cafe, it's not at all obvious that we miss home! They unfortunately did not have an English menu, nor did our waitress speak much English. Tim was looking at the club sandwiches, of which they had several different types, one of which was called the "Indiana Club". Tim asked what was on the "Indiana Club" and our waitress described it as a red animal from the sea and I kid you not made "pinchers" with her hands. I'm not sure what was funnier, her impromptu game of charades or the fact that they put crab on a sandwich called the "Indiana Club".

After dinner we went back to the hotel and watched a movie before heading to bed.

The Spanish Capital

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Today is our last day in Spain, and our only full day to explore Madrid, Spain's capital city. We set out mid-morning with the Royal Palace of Madrid the first item on our agenda. The Royal Palace of Madrid, or the Palacio Real, is the official residence of the King of Spain in Madrid, but is only used for State Ceremonies. We spent a couple of hours touring the Palace as well as its pharmacy and armory before making our way across the plaza to the Cathedral of Madrid. When the the capital of Spain was moved from Toledo to Madrid in 1561, the seat of the Church remained in Toledo, so Madrid had no cathedral, which was quite unusual for a capital of a Catholic country. Plans for a cathedral were discussed as early as the 16th century, but construction of a Cathedral did not begin until 1879. Construction was then halted during the Spanish Civil War and did not resume until 1950 and wasn't completed until 1993. The Cathedral is very different from most of those we have seen throughout our trip, in that it is uniquely modern in its design and decor. After a brief stop at the Cathedral we made our way to the Basilica de San Francisco, which is located in one of the oldest districts of Madrid. The 18th century church is Madrid's largest and is still used today. Unfortunately the Church was closed when we stopped by, so we were unable to see its interior. Unable to tour the Church, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat from a nearby supermarket before continuing on.

After lunch we walked through the old center of Madrid known as Los Austrias, which is named such because this historical center was built during the reign of the Habsburg Dynasty. We eventually made our way to the Plaza Mayor. The Plaza Mayor is the most notable construction by the Habsburgs and is a large, rectangular plaza surrounded by arcades and accessible by nine entrances. During the time of the Habsburgs' reign the Plaza Mayor was used for bullfights, executions, and coronations. After strolling around the Plaza Mayor and the surrounding streets of Los Austrias, we headed back to the hotel for a rest before coming back into town for dinner.

After a rest we headed back for the area of Los Austrias to find a good Tapas restaurant to enjoy our last night in Spain. After some amazing Patatas Bravas, Pincho Moreno, and Croquettes we made our way to the Chocolateria San Ginés for some chocolate y churros, before heading back to the hotel to get some rest before our 7:00 a.m. flight tomorrow to Paris.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Taste of Toledo

Monday, July 19th, 2010

We got up this morning around 8 o’clock so that we could make our way to the train station by 9 o’clock or so for our 9:20 a.m. train to Toledo. We enjoyed a chat with an American family who was in Spain for their eldest daughter to attend a language course in Salamanca, and were staying in Madrid for a few days before heading home and were day tripping down to Toledo for the day just as we were. We arrived in Toledo at approximately 11 o’clock, and enjoyed some sandwiches we had brought with us at the beautiful Toledo train station for our morning snack before catching the public bus into town and to the main plaza.

After a brief stop in the plaza to make a plan of attack, we were off. Our first stop was the Alcazar, however it was unfortunately closed, as it Monday today, and many museums, etc. are often closed on Mondays in Europe, so we could only admire it from the exterior. After a quick photo opportunity at the Alcazar, we began to make our way through the narrow winding maze of streets in Toledo to the Cathedral of Toledo. We did have a detour however, when we spotted a Templar Exhibition, this of course was something Tm could not pass up, so we toured the exhibition and learned all about the Templar Knights and their significance in Spain, and presence in Toldeo. After the exhibition I bet we went in every sword shop we came across. From these experiences Tim deducted that he wants to one, be a Templar Knight for Halloween, and two, make a sword (since I wouldn’t let him buy one). Eventually, several souvenir shops later we arrived at the Cathedral of Toledo. We toured the inside of the massive cathedral, including an art gallery, containing numerous paintings by El Grecco, who was from Toledo. Inside the Cathedral we met a man and a woman from Dallas, one just starting their journey and one just finishing and had a chat about travels, etc. From the Cathedral of Toledo we made our way down to the Iglesia de Santo Tome, which is famous primarily for the painting in its entrance which contains one of El Grecco’s best pieces of work. From here we walked down to see one of several Synagoges in Toledo, again running into the pair from Dallas, but again it was unfortunately closed today, as was the Casa de Greco, a museum containing many works by El Greco, but this was okay by us as we had already seen numerous El Greco paintings today and had seen several in the museum in Madrid yesterday as well. So we continued on to the Synagoge de Santa Maria La Blanca. The interior structure of the building itself was beautiful, but it was a bit odd as it was simply filled with drawings, sketching, and paintings of a Christian nature, and there was a nun inside selling the works, there wasn’t any information in English on the Synagoge, so it is unclear to us if perhaps it had been converted to a church or was no longer in use and was owned by a church, or something to that effect perhaps. Next, we continued down the street to the San Juan de los Reyes monastery. This was one of our favorite stops in Toledo. The monastery’s exterior, as well as interior courtyard/cloister, was ridden with detailed carvings, its staircases lit with beautiful chandeliers, and it was obvious why its church is such a popular site for wedding ceremonies, as we learned listening in on a nearby English tour. After touring the monastery we simply walked the picturesque streets of Toledo, slowly making our way back to its main square where we enjoyed a leisurely, but overly expensive, meal on the main plaza.

After our lunch we caught the Toledo Tourist Bus, per Tim’s mom’s suggestion, to take us on a ring around the city. From the bus we could see the various bridges/gates to the once completely walled city. We also stopped for a moment at a fantastic viewing spot to take photos of the city in its entirety, before continuing on around and back into the heart of the city. The entire trip took just shy of an hour. Once off the bus we took a taxi from the main square back to the train station where we caught a 5:30 p.m. train back to Madrid, oddly enough we were seated on the train right in from of the pair we had met in the Cathedral from Dallas. It is funny how on these trips you often will see the same people throughout the day at different venues, particularly in these smaller towns.

Once back in Madrid we went back to our hotel to have a bit of a rest, as we were very tired from exploring Toledo for a full day. After our rest we set out to a pizza place near our hotel and enjoyed a late dinner (as usual in Spain) before heading back to the hotel and to bed. Tomorrow we will see more of the sights in Madrid, it will be our last day in Spain.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Taking in some art on a Sunday afternoon

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

We woke early this morning to take a taxi from our hotel in Seville to the train station to catch an 8:45 a.m. train to Madrid. The trip was about two and a half hours, much better than the eight our train ride it took us to get to Seville. Upon our arrival in the Madrid Atocha train station we got directions from a lady at the tourist information booth on how to get to our hotel by metro. I have to admit the first couple of times we arrived in a city without knowing EXACTLY where our hotel was and how to get to it, I was a bit stressed, but by now I’ve learned, that there is a tourist office in every train station/airport and if you can’t quite get to where you are going with their directions alone, that people are generally happy to help you find your way. We followed the lady’s directions, switching metro lines once and arrived at the metro station she said was closest to our hotel. The hotel was not in direct sight, so I asked a bystander if they knew where it was, and sure enough, they kindly pointed us in the right direction. Once at the hotel we checked in and dropped our bags before heading back in to the center of town on the Metro.

I had read in our travel guide that a couple of Madrid’s more famous museums were free on Sundays, so we decided to give a couple of them a go. First stop was the Museo de Arte de Reina Sofia, Madrid’s modern art museum and home to works by such famous Spanish artists as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, among others. After touring the areas of the museum where many of these artists’ works are featured, we left the museum to grab some lunch, as it was nearly after 2 o’clock at this point.

After lunch we walked down to the El Prado Museum, Spain’s most famous museum. When we reached the ticket booth however we realized that the free hours did not start until 5:00 p.m. So we decided to come back a little later so we could take advantage of the free admittance. Instead we went to the Caixa Forum and toured a moving photography exhibit that was featured there. After exploring the Caixa Forum we stopped for a snack and to relax for a bit before heading back to the Prado Museum.

Shortly after five o’clock we walked back in the direction of the Prado Museum, however, to our dismay we discovered that we weren’t the only ones looking to take advantage of the free admission, the line was a couple hundred yards long, and not being the biggest art museum people to begin with, we decided to give it a pass. So we made our way back towards the metro station, stopping first at the train station to book our tickets to Toledo for tomorrow before heading back to our hotel.

The remainder of the evening we spent in the area around our hotel. We went for a couple of drinks and a snack at a café nearby before returning to our hotel. A couple of hours later we inquired about restaurants in the area or markets, only to discover that not much was open in the area on a Sunday evening, so we ended up going back to the same café for dinner, I don’t think they recognized us, but we felt a bit silly.

Tomorrow we rise early to take a train to Toledo where we will spend the day.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Picture Perfect Town in the Southern Spanish Sun

I am pretty sure we could have slept all day today. Our hotel here in Seville is one of the few hotels where the air conditioning has worked without a hitch, that has had a comfortable bed, and where the way the buildings are so close together prevents the sun from shining in. We slept until after 10:00 this morning, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

When we finally made it out of the hotel into the hot Seville sun we meandered through the winding narrow streets of the Barrio de Santa Cruz to the city's Cathedral. The Cathedral was built on the site of the former Muslim Seville's main mosque between 1401 and 1507. We toured the Cathedral and walked up to the top of its adjoining tower, La Giralda, which was the former mosque's minaret dating to the 12th century.

After touring the Cathedral and tower we walked towards Alcazar, the former residence of Muslim and Christian royalty, and found an inexpensive place to grab sandwiches, cold drinks, and to get out of the sun, something one has to do frequently in the July Sevillan sun.

After lunch we toured Alcazar. Seville's Alcazar was founded in 913 as a Muslim fortress. The fortress has been expanded and rebuilt numerous times in it's 11 century existence. The Catholic Monarchs, Fernando and Isabel, set up court here in the 1480s as the prepared to conquer Granada. Its intricate architecture with its many courtyards, painted tiles, detailed carvings, wood panel ceilings, etc. as well as its ornate gardens were the highlight of Seville in my opinion.

By the time we finished our tour of Seville's Alcazar we were pretty tired and were in desperate need of an escape from the blazing heat, so we went back to the hotel with some cold beverages to relax and cool down.

Within a couple of hours we were ready to set back out. This time we headed outside of the historic center towards the Plaza de Espana and the Parque de Maria Luisa. The Plaza de Espana was unfortunately under construction, but we were still able to appreciate the grandeur of the plaza and could imagine how much better it will be when the renovations are complete. After wandering around the Plaza we walked through the Parque de Maria Luisa to the river. We then walked along the river, stopping after a while for another break from the heat for a cold refreshment and a snack. Revitalized, we finished our stroll down the waterfront at the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza in front of Seville's bullring, one of Spain's oldest. From here we headed back to the hotel through the narrow streets of the Barrio de Santa Cruz where we had a brief evening swim.

Refreshed by our swim and a bit of a rest in the hotel we set back out into the Barrio de Santa Cruz around half past nine to a restaurant we had scoped out earlier near the Cathedral. Here we enjoyed a variety of tapas: Croquettes, Pimientos Rellenos de Carne, Bruschettes de Pollo Morraqui, etc. and some drinks before heading back to the hotel. Tomorrow we take a morning train to Madrid. I am sad we don't have a bit more time to enjoy Seville, as it has been one of my favorite cities, but I am glad that our trip moves on and that the days continue to go by, as we are both in many ways, although we are still very much enjoying our trip, ready to go home.