Monday, January 20, 2014

Paris - day 1 & 3

January 16 2014
Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

So I'm off to Paris again. My friend Christina announced five years ago that she wanted to celebrate her 40th birthday in Paris so we had 5 years to get ready. So here we are. We are 11 making our way to Paris from Montreal, Vancouver and London. The eight of us from Montreal were lucky to have access to the maple leaf lounge (thanks Steven!) so we started off the trip in class.

We are currently 2 hours into the flight. We seem to attract a lot of attention everywhere we go. I guess we'd better get used to it. Laughter from a group of people is bound to attract attention.

When I travel from CDG to the city I like to use a car service. It's easier than trying to catch a shuttle and surprisingly cheaper than a cab. Plus who wouldn't want to have a driver waiting for you after a long flight?  The eight of us will travel to and from the airport in a private shuttle for 45$ CDN including tip. Sounds like a bargain to me!

They've just turned off the lights, time to try to have a snooze.

January 19th
We'd planned our day with almost military precision. That's how it has to happen if you want to hit everything everyone wants to do.
We started off at Sainte Chapelle - built in the 13th century to house Jesus' Crown of Thorns.  The stained glass was pretty impressive but for some reason it jut didn't WOW me.  The interesting thing is that this church and its stained glass were the best part of the day for most of the group.  I did however have a good chuckle because the was a Korean group with semi professional film equipment trying to film a movie in the chapel interior. There was a girl walking solemnly up the aisle looking at the alter.  It was strange and they were having trouble filming with group of 10 trying to inspect the stained glass. It was a funny distraction..

Next on the agenda was Notre-Dame cathedral which is a personal favourite of mine. We went for gregorian mass. It was awesome and a first because I have never listened to a latin mass before. It did not disappoint, I was moved. For some reason, I always feel a strong connection to my maternal grand-mother Mamie when I'm here. I felt her close again and always felt happy that she's there with me in spirit even though she never got to go. Another surprise was that Christ's crown of thorns was on display at Notre-Dame. 

After mass, some of the group chose to climb the Notre-Dame towers.  I unfortunately am having foot issues, so I chose to skip and have a great lunch with Jen instead. The Gargoyle tour was apparently amazing a fairly we'll organized. The line was long but they let in 20 people every 10 minutes so the line moves in spurts. Our group gotta trough in about an hour. 

We then made our way across town to the catacombs. The catacombs always have a fairly long line and there's no real way to get around it. Be there before 2:30 if you want to be admitted before closing at 4pm. Now I have to admit, I don't think I would have visited the catacombs if it weren't for the fact that most of the group wanted to go. So what's in the catacombs?  The bones of 6 million Parisians that were relocated from the cemeteries to an ossuary in the catacombs. It was a little creepy and a little interesting. I would have preferred that it be a little shorter but I'm glad I went. I got a little claustrophobic at the end for the climb up a tight narrow staircase with almost 100 stairs. My quads are going to be rock hard by the time I get back home. Parisians love their stairs!

Following the catacombs we headed over to the Parthenon. I was hoping to see the Foucault pendulum and others wanted to see Marie Curie's tomb. Unfortunately, the dome is being renovated so the pendulum is not on display. Remember that if you planned to visit the Partenom for that so,e purpose anytime before 2017. It should be back by the end of that year or so the guard memtioned.  I did however see Marie Curies' tomb. 

We went for drinks for Happy Hour by Notre-dame at a little bar called oubliette. We had an awesome time before making our way over to Julien's in the 4th. We all had fantastic meals. I had a kir, followed by a artichoke and goat cheese Mille Feuilles and chateaubriand as a main course.  Our waiter Xavier was a great sport. We had great service and he made our evening even better.r.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Toledo, Spain: a not so hidden gem

Holy Toledo is right! What a beautiful city.
We first got a glimpse of the city from the taxi on the way out of the train station.  It's perched up on the top of a hill and offers an Alcazar and many cathedrals and church spires for a skyline.

For those arriving to Toledo with luggage, if you want to do some heavy cardio by lugging your bags up a hill and through narrow and cobblestone roads, be my guest, but I much preferred paying a taxi to drive us up the hill for 5E and then walk the streets unencumbered. Especially given that the digital readout on an outside thermometer showed us that it was 43 degrees Celsius upon our arrival.

Our Hotel, Las Conchas, our room was right beside the H
Starved as usual, we tried a little restaurant right around the corner from our hotel.  Meson de la Posta felt like a Spanish restaurant so we ordered a Toledonian dish Carcarmusas, which is like a stew, with dos cervesas.

Inside the Meson de la Posta, check out the bull on the wall!
 We walked the labyrinth of streets and quickly found our way to plaza Zocodover and then decided to make out way to the walls of the city and we ended up walking along below the wall. Such a beautiful view!

I walked back up the hill and along the maze of streets until I found the beautiful St-Mary's Cathedral. What a beautiful cathedral inside and out!  It was impressive to see so much investment and money that went into such a big beautiful church from a relatively small city.  You can understand why Toledo remained the capital of Spain for a long time.  It was definitely the religious epicentre.

Toledo's Alcazar

Toledo's St-Mary's cathedral

Toledo's crest, as seen on the sides of buildings and buses.

Inside Toledo's Cathedral

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Segovia, Spain

Segovia, prenounced Say-Goh-via with the emphasis on the GO, is also just out of Madrid to the north west.
I had heard a lot of good things about Segovia before even going to Spain.  A colleague had talked about the Roman aqueduct; the Alcazar but mostly the ‘cocchinillo asado’ (roast suckling pig). 
Unfortunately for me, yesterday’s tour of Avilà and our strolling late in Madrid lead to some pretty awful blisters on the balls of both of my feet.  So basically every step I took in Segovia was painful.  That being said, I really enjoyed our visit.  The Roman aqueduct really is impressive.  I believe it’s the only one of it’s kind remaining and from what I overheard from an English speaking guide it seems there are some left underground but this is the only one left at this height.
As for Alcazar, the castle really is Disney-esque.  I was a little less amazed since it’s been rebuilt and renovated quite a few times over the last few centuries so though you get a sense of what it was it wasn’t as impressive as it could have been. 
Segovia's Alcazar
Now for the cocchinillo, the "I would be a vegetarian if I had to hunt" in me was a little terrified of the thought of a full roasted piglet on a platter on my table but in the end, we ordered a quarter pig, so I only had to deal with a pig foot.  Josée was nice enough to serve me so that I didn’t have to look at the pig and I have to admit that it was absolutely delicious, moist, tender and flavourful.  We hate at a small restaurant called Meson Juan Jimeno on the main street leaving the Alcazar. I definitely recommend it.
We spent the rest of the afternoon sipping Sangria at a terrace in Plaza Mayor as we waited for our 8pm bus. Now what happened next, was another first. Our bus broke down about 15 minutes out of Segovia.  We didn’t really understand what was happening, the bus came to a stop, then the Police showed up and the bus was pushed out of the roundabout and down a little hill to the side of the road.  The police told us we could get off the bus and the thirty of us sat on the side of the road looking on as the driver looked at the engine and the transmission and scratched his head.  My Spanish is passable, I understand when people speak slowly and when I understand the context, I had no idea what was being said.  What I heard was another bus in twenty to thirty minutes and sure enough a new bus came by to pick us up.  All’s well that ends well and I can honestly say I was never scared nor frustrated, we had nowhere else to be but Madrid since we’re on vacation so we laughed and read and played games on our phones.  Plus one of the police was quite cute so he was fun to look at!
Segovia's cathedral as seen from Alcazar

Our broken bus and police escort

Avilà, Spain: walled city

Avilà is a one hour train ride side trip from Madrid.  Its claims to fame are its medieval walls; it’s the birthplace of Saint Theresa and Yema desert treats made by the nuns.

Like with the country in general in mid-July, Avilà is incredibly hot at midday as the only shade to be found comes from the buildings depending on the angle of the sun! Avilà’s walls reminded me of the little town of Castellino in Italy. Though it seems that built in 1100, Avilà’s walls are Spain’s oldest, most well preserved and most complete.

The first view of the walls after the 10 minute walk from the train station
Main gate

 I would recommend a few hours stopover in Avila if you're in the area. By the way, as for Yemas, the famous desert, we bought some at the nun's bakery and had some on the way home.  I'm not sure if we bought the wrong thing but they are litterally a fried egg yolk covered in sugar.  It's not bad, but it has a weird texture and wasn't what I was expecting at all!

Madrid, another city that never sleeps

Madrid is the city where I quickly discovered that you have to learn to pace yourself. It’s incredibly hot, 37 or 38°C before the humidex and at midnight it’s still over 30!  Also, Spaniards seem to come to life around 5 in the evening, have dinner around 10 or 11 and at midnight are still walking the streets with young children. The heat is exhausting and even with breaks during the day, you really either need to get a very late start or you need to siesta in the middle of the afternoon as it’s quite easy to get into the rhythm of eating late and staying up late.

The Royal Palace

I can’t say Madrid is impressive because of its monuments.  The Royal Palace is nice but it’s not Versailles. After the Royal Palace we did the hop on, hop off bus.  Though, there are quite a few gates, I can’t say that it rivals Barcelona’s architecture and its sheer number of monuments.  We did, however, take the time to visit Real Madrid’s Stadium Bernabeu.  Our tour included access to the stadium seating at various levels, the pitch, a trophy room, the player’s bench and the locker room.  It was quite interesting to be able to see all the trophies and to discover that Real Madrid was named the best team of the 20th century by FIFA.
On the pitch

We had a great late night at a place called Bulev’art where Heineken is 6 for 5E! Even at 3am there are still many people walking the streets.  It’s been great but exhausting.
At Mile 0, the center of Spain
We tried a great restaurant yesterday that was recommended in the guidebook called El Caldero where we had a great chicken and vegetable Spanish rice dish which we had with the fantastic house Sangria.  They served us a digestif called Karlova which is a caramel vodka drink!  It was fabulous.  If ever you’re in Madrid near Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana look for this restaurant you won’t regret it.
Speaking of Puerta del Sol, I stood at mile ‘0’ which, according to the, plaque in the square, marks the spot for the center of Spain. 

So if ever in Madrid, enjoy the strolls through the streets, enjoy the cooler evenings and nights, grab a spot on a terasse to people watch. Or, like me, you can enjoy listening to a guy following you along down the street, telling you how beautiful you are and how much he would like to come to Canada ;)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Barcelona, a city not unlike Montreal

We had 2 days in Barcelona, well 1 full and two half days including the arrival and departure days.  I didn’t know much about the city besides the fact that it is in a region called Catalunya which considers itself a distinct society within Spain much like Quebec.  There are two official languages; Catalan and Spanish.  Catalan is like a Spanish version of French, for example please is si vos plaus, closer to s’il vous plait then por favore.

At my last blog, I posted that we were going out on the tourist bus; we caught the red line and enjoyed the city from the top of the open double decker was really starting to sink in that A-I’m on vacation and B- how wonderful it is to be in Barcelona. 

Our first jump off was at Place d’Espanya. It was the setting for the 1929 world fair as well as the about our whirlwind first afternoon and evening. 1992 Olympics. Next stop for us was the Teleferic de Montjuic which brought us up Montjuic (about the same size as Mont Royal it would seem to me, where we got to visit the castle where we enjoyed some wonderful views of Barcelona. Since we got on the last bus tour, we hopped off at the stop at the bottom of the Ramblas to that we could stroll it and find a place to eat dinner.  We went to a restaurant called La Fonda recommended by Rick Steves.  We had a great meal including wine and desert for 16.5E.  After dinner, exhausted, we made our way up the Rablas as were amazed but the sheet number of people out even close to midnight! So much for our early nigh!

Saturday we were up and out for about 11:00 and headed back to the touristic bus.  We got on at Placa de Catalunya and made our way North.  The plan was to head to Barcelona’s most iconic landmark, Gaudi’s Segrega Familia.  When we got there, we headed for the ticket line and were dismayed to see that the line to buy tickets wrapped around three sides of the Church.  Now I have to mention that my trusty Rick Steves’ guidebook had recommended that we skip the line by buying our tickets online, I don’t know want possessed me not the take the advice especially given my experience skipping the 4 hour line at the Coliseum thanks to the same guidebook.  Anyhow, we decided to continue on the route and loop back to the hotel, buy the tickets and go back late afternoon.
Me in front of the Passion Facade of Segrega Familia

Our next stop was at Parc Güell, another of Gaudi’s creations.  It was meant to be a 30 acres, park-like gated community.  The project never took off and the 15 acres that contain Gaudi’s work were donated back to the city by the Güell family.  I didn’t think I would be a Gaudi fan, but I can now appreciate his use of engineering and his desire to replicate what is seen in nature.

Main Entrance at Park Gruell

We had a nice lunch sitting on a terrace just outside the park and had sangria, Spanish ham sandwiches and a salad.  What a wonderful way to take a breather!

Our next hop was at the Barcelona futball stadium, the largest in Europe, with a capacity of 100,000 and home to Club Barca.  Europeen Soccer is currently on hiatus due to the Euro Cup and the Olympics in two weeks. So the only way we were going to see the inside of the stadium was to buy a 23E tour that lasted 1.5 hours.  So we skipped given that it was already late afternoon. 

Back at the hotel Reding for 6pm, I jumped on the computer to buy our Segrega tickets and saw that the last pre-purchased entrance is at 7pm.  Since it didn’t leave us enough time we adapted our plans We headed to the beach!  I love any excuse to go to the beach, so we spent the last 2 hours of the sun sitting on the beach, I went for a quick dip and read while Josee rode the waves for a while. 

We did manage to go home to change and then headed back out at midnight to enjoy the Barcelona nightlife.  We stood in line for half an hour at the Opium Mar, apparently THE place to go in July 2012 but were turned away at the door because we were wearing flats though the excuse was that it was a VIP only night. What can I say?  We got the once over and when he got to our feet, said do you have a VIP invitation?  No, sorry, tonight is VIP only.  Some got rejected as soon as they were seen, no scan so at least we past part of the audition! So ladies, if you’re ever in Barcelona and want to get into Opium Mar, wear a dress and heels!

But seriously, we ended up at Catwalk bar where 20E buys you admittance and a drink.  Nice place, good music and lots of people!  It was great.  Managed to stay out and awake until 3h30!

This morning was difficult, I was exhausted but we dragged our lazy tired bones out to our 11am ticket reservation at Segrega Familila which is Gaudi’s greatest work and the most iconic landmark in Barcelona. What I didn’t know is that Segrega is unfinished.  It was started in 1909 by Gaudi and has been under construction at various times since his death in 1926 to be completed according to his plans.  It should be complete in 2030.  BTW, something else I learned, Gaudi died in his early seventies when he was hit by a tram.

Our 3hr high speed train ride from Barcelona to Madrid allowed us to catch some sleep and recoup a little.  We found our hotel relatively quickly, 2 lines and about 5 stops from the train station.  It’s in a cute neighbourhood that looks to be bustling with activity.  We’re looking forward to going out to explore it whilst we scavenge for food!

Hasta Magnana!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Day 1 Barcelona, Spain

So far, so good. An easy flight with only minor turbulence that got us Barcelona an hour early, only to be put into a holding pattern for 30 minutes! We found the shuttle busses really easily and we deposited 4 minutes from the hotel.  Since our room wasn't ready, we dropped our bags and headed out to Rambla, the main tourist street that reminds me a lot of Champs Elisees but narrower.  We were looking for a nice terasse to enjoy a drink and some tapas and ended up eating at this interesting restaurant just off the Ramblas.  A prosciutto sandwich and a sangria for 5.6 Euro seems reasonable to me!

We decided that we wanted to tr the hop on, hop off. So we went back to check into our rooms and get ready to go out.  Josee needed a power nap, so I decided to start writing.  So for those who were wondering, we're here safe and sound. 

More later when I'm not posting from a public computer! Hasta Luego!