Saturday, December 10, 2011

Notre-Dame and the Louvre, oh my!

Today was quite the busy day. 

We woke up to a beautiful albeit chilly 4 degrees and walked to the local coffee shop and bakery for breakfast.  I think by tomorrow they should have our orders memorised :)

We decided to go straight to Notre-Dame Cathedral and take advantage of the first sun we've seen so far in Paris.  Notre-Dame has always been one of my favorite places and remains one of the most impressive churches I have ever seen. The architecture and all of the Gothic design elements are quite literally impressive.  We walked around the church and got different vantage points of the beautiful church and wandered around the very eclectic and artsy streets that surround it.  We even had a Parisian-style lunch of a panini on the go, purchased from a restaurant window on the restaurant alley beside the Notre-Dame. 

After a few hours we decided to make our way to the Louvre by foot, it was a beautiful day and it's not that far.  Surprisingly, for a Saturday, the line-up at the Louvre wasn't bad, we only waiting about 10 minutes at the main entrance and no wait at the automatic ticket machines. 

We only wanted to spend a few hours and really only wanted to see one part of the Denon wing of the museum, we wanted to see the Mona Lisa, the Wedding of Cana as well as the Venus of Milo.  I must admit, we aren't good museum visited, we glances at paintings and sculptures and really just paid closer attention when something that pleased our eye caught our attention.  Or sometimes when something was really bad (to our eyes) we wandered over to see whose masterpiece we were witnessing.

I was happy to see the Mona Lisa with more mature eyes.  I was 14 when I first saw her and I remember being very disappointed. She's not quite as small as I remember her being but she is surrounded by as many people. I believe they've moved her since I last saw her because she's now in the same room as the wedding of Cana which is still as impressive as the first time I saw it.  It takes up a full wall and you could easily spend hours interpreting the details and the subtleties of the painting.  I noticed that only two characters are looking directly at the audience, Jesus and a women on the left of the painting, I wonder who she's suppose to be given that Mary Madeleine is on Jesus' left. 

Venus of Milo

Veronese's Wedding of Cana

You can't get a good picture of the Mona Lisa who's behind 6 inches of plexi glass and behind a barricade 10 feet away!

We saw a lot in the three hours we were there and was quite satisfied with my visit to the Louvre.  I was even happier when I found a Starbucks in the Louvre.  What better way to end an afternoon like we had then with a tall vanilla latte???

The metro ride home was quite the experience.  I thought yesterday was an adventure this evening was even worse.  If ever you're in Paris at rush hour, even on the weekend, and are at a station with plastic wall barricades along the track be forewarned, the platform will get full and the train will arrive at full capacity.  It's every man, woman and child for himself as you try to negotiate for a place on the train.  I wish I had been able to take out my camera to take a picture because I don't think I could ever draw an accurate portrayal in words.  Dad and I squeezed into the train that was already full much to the dismay of the people already on the train, but then 5 more people threw themselves onto the train.  The guy closest to me was less polite than I was last night when I backed in with mom.  He used his elbow as he literally plowed in.  I was already sandwiched against the other people on the train  so this literally knocked the wind out of me.  My yelp of surprise and pain did little to stop him, he kept pushing until he was certain that he was staying on the train.  But I think the most surprising to me was at the next stop.  As we waiting on the platform that filled with people, two older Chinese ladies that were about 4foot8, 80 pounds dressed to the nines and all made up, came up along side us.  When the train arrived, full of course, and people jostled to get on, one of them literally pushed me into the train, it was like I had a 200 pound linebacker behind me!  Even once we were on the train and sardined together, I guess she wanted more room for herself because she planted both her hands on my lower back and pushed.  I really couldn't believe the moxie, and to think, I almost offered them help on the platform because they looked a little lost.  I don't know how Parisians do this every day without getting into fights.  I can't see people getting away with behaviour like this in Montreal, there would be brawls all the time.  It's way too stressful and physically demanding!

We decided to have a night in the apartment so we ordered pizza from the restaurant next door and bought a bottle of wine for 3.8E that was really quite good and had mille-feuilles from the local bakery.  Overall, an excellent way to end the evening.

Paris Day 2, Versailles Take 2

We woke to a gloomy rainy Friday morning. We knew we needed a quick start to make it to Versailles bright and early.  This morning we picked our café crème to go from the local brasserie and picked up some chocolatines from the local bakery.

We made it to Versailles, on the right train today, at around 10 am.  As we exited the train station I spotted a Starbucks, Yay! Since we needed to use the washroom and we can always use an excuse for a grande no foam non-fat latte, we made a pit stop.

Château Versaille
Versailles was as opulent as I remembered from my last visit 19 years ago! The gold and the chandeliers are absolutely remarkable.  The salon des glaces is still my favorite.

However, the frescos on the ceilings are also quite impressive. One in the Diana room had me particularly impressed.

After Château Versailles, we decide to have lunch in the city of Versailles and had lunch at a modern little creperie.  We had excellent ham, cheese and mushroom crêpes bretonnes followed by Froment Crêpes with Nutella.  And for those who know us well, you won't be surprised that the three of us, ordered exactly the same meal again!

Today was also MBA graduation day 2 for me.  Time to accept my Paris-Dauphine diploma  It was a nice evening and now I can officially close that chapter of my life.  Quite a proud day if I can be allowed to be proud.  I'm now a executive MBA graduate from the université of Paris-Dauphine.  Who would have thought I would be accepting my MBA from a top ranked Paris university?
The unfortunate part is that I caught a nasty cold.  What started as a sore throat yesterday developed into a full-fledged head cold in time for convocation.  I toughed it out but by the time we left, I was battling a fever, some pretty nasty congestion and all the other fun symptoms that accompany a head cold,  but I was determined not to let it spoil the evening.  We went for a nice celebratory dinner at a brand new restaurant recommended by a colleague. Just off les Champs Élysées, on les acacias, le Dodin offers typical French cuisine.  Again, we all ordered the same meal: la pièce de boeuf d’Aubrac à la moelle avec sa purée mousseline à l’ancienne joliment moutardée.  It was absolutely delicious, and although we were full we wanted to try their specialty desert, le pain perdu which is like a piece of spice cake prepared like french toast.  As they called it, c'est un cake.  It was served with a scoop of homemade hazelnut ice cream and it was absolutely delicious combined with our café crème.

Another great day in Paris that had us collapsing into bed.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Paris, mais oui!

So on our first full day in Paris, we slept in...  I think we needed it.  We went back to the café we had spotted last night and had café crème, 3 mini-chocolatine and croissant's each as well as a glass of freshly pressed OJ.  What a treat to see your orange juice being pressed in front of you!  I saw four full oranges go into the press for my glass.

Our plan for the day was to visit Versailles in the afternoon then see what we felt like doing.  So we made our way to the train station, two metro lines and some walking in underground tunnels later, we end up at the train station.  A few minor glitches since we couldn't figure out where to buy tickets for the regional train and both information desks were closed. Also we realised that both trains go through the same platform.  Next train going to Versailles will be the short one going through at 2:04.  Should be simple right??  Wrong!  Not for us it seems.  We got on the next train, because it was suppose to be ours.  We didn't check the length of the train or actually look at our watches.  About 20 minutes into the ride, I asked Dad to check how many more stops before Versailles.  We realise that we're on the wrong line, going in the opposite direction.  So we got off the train at the next station, crossed over to the other platform and of course miss the train, next one 30 minutes later.  So we now have to sit and wait on a platform out in suburbia.  Obviously, it's cold and windy and none of us dressed to be sitting on a platform in the cold.  We came to the conclusion that since we'd be boarding the train at 3 and that we would be back at the station around 3:20, it no longer made sense to go to Versailles.  So we made new plans.

We got off the train  at Bir Hakeim station and Mom and Dad got their first real up close sighting of the Eiffel Tower.  It really is quite impressive no matter how often you've seen it. We walked to the tower, took loads of pictures and decided that we were hungry for a snack.  So we headed to a local brasserie le Bailli du Suffren. We had croque messieurs avec frites with a good café crème to warm up our fingers.  After the much deserved rest we headed back to other side of the Seine in front of the Eiffel Tower at the base of Trocadero was a cute Christmas market.  They have a U shape of Wooden huts decorated with lights and selling various things including Gluwein (hot mulled wine). We also took in the Tower's first sparkling session. It really is quite beautiful and it's nice to see tourists have the same reaction I had the first time I was surprised by it. 

We walked back to the Eiffel tower to see if we could go up but decided the line was too long.  Mom's ticket had been demagnetised so Dad and I walked back to have it fixed.  About 30 mins and close to 2 km later we got back to the Eiffel tower and made our way to the nearest metro which was Trocadero.  What a beautiful view of the market and the Tower,  We made our way to the Champs Élisées and walked to Marboeuf Street in search of Chez André where they supposedly make the best Mille Feuilles in Paris.  We finally made it there only to be told to leave by the Maitre D.  He actually told us to get out, there's no room.. So insulted, we went to stand in line at the restaurant across the street that makes the best Steak Frites.  We waiting about 45 minutes and then M&D got to taste the wonderful Steak Frites with the weird green sauce that tastes much better then it looks. 

Arguably the best Steak Frites in Paris is found here

Around 11pm we made our way back to the apartment.  The Metro station was packed.  They have these barricades that prevent people from being pushed onto the tracks when the platform is crowded.  When the train arrived, it was full.  I knew from experience that it wouldn't get better so we needed to get on.  Mom didn't want to try to get on so I grabbed her in a bear hug and barrelled backwards onto the train, like a reverse tackle. We were sandwiched so closely, we didn't even need to hold onto anything to stay standing.  Even the metro in Beijing or Korea weren't as full as this car was :)  But what great stories this makes later.  We made it back to the apartment in one piece, albeit with sore feet and more than a little tired.

What a great first day in Paris: Eiffel Tower,Christmas markets on Trocadero,  Champs Élisées decorated for Christmas, best steak frites in town...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ravenna Italy- Last stop of the cruise

Ravenna Italy, the last port on our 11 day cruise.  Rick Steve’s’ guidebook suggests that Ravenna can be visited in a three to four hour visit.  We decided that we would visit 2 of the 3 recommended sites; the Basilica di San Vitale & Santa Maria Maggiore.
We had a little hiccup with the cruise line this morning. When the city is further then walking distance away, they sell tickets to a shuttle bus.  That’s right, charge; it’s never free, nothing is ever free on MSC. So we had tickets for the first bus that cost us 30 for the 3 of us.  We missed the first bus which is ok but when we got outside there was a long line and no shuttle waiting.  The next bus arrived and they all the people in line with strollers on board and so we didn’t get on the bus.  Apparently they had 12 buses on the route but again, in typically Italian management processes, it took them a while to get organised and it took 20 minutes for another bus to arrive.  When the bus arrived a young Italian woman ran past us and jumped on board first.  She then proceeded to save the first row for her friends.  She argued with us that she could save the seats.  We argued a little but in the end decided that we didn’t want a confrontation.  Her friends spent the entire 20 minutes bus ride being rude and speaking in Italian and laughing at us and others.  We decided to put it behind us and enjoy Ravenna.
The city itself is nothing special, however, there were a few interesting sites.  There was a cute Christmas market in Piazza del Popolo, which was built in the 1500s by the venetians. We made a few purchases. We stopped for a cappuccino at a small café before going into Basilica San Vitale.  Though the morning started off cool and overcast by lunchtime the sun starting making its appearance and the temperature rose from 7 to about 13°.
Basilica di San Vitale was built in 540 AD by the Romans at the end of their reign.  It was meant to show their power and act as a sanctuary while the madness surrounding the barbarians took hold of Europe. The entire inside of the church is covered in lavish tile mosaics and marble patterned floors.  It was really quite impressive.  The ceilings really had me impressed. The sun coming in through the windows had the mosaics shining and full of colour.  Particularly interesting is the portrayal of Christ according to byzantine tradition without a beard and in red velvet robes like a king.
Fresco on the ceiling of Basilica di San Vitale
San Vitale
San Vitale

We also made our way to the mausoleum Galla Placidia which contains the oldest mosaics in Ravenna and apparently the bones of Placidia who was the daughter, sister, wife and mother of Roman emperors and died in 450AD.
After the visits we had decided we had to try the local pizza so we stop at the same little café on Via Argentario and had a pizza and some half pints of local beer before making our way back to the shuttle.
Back on the ship, I went for a nice relaxing manicure.
Tonight is our last night on the ship.  We have the second seating for dinner which means we eat at 8:15. After dinner we have to pack our bags and leave them outside the door before 2am, we have to vacate the room tomorrow before 7:30 am and then we’re supposed to be off the ship by 9am.
On another post I’ll have to write about my experience with the staff and the other cultures on board. I know many Germans and am friends with several Germans but the ones on this cruise are really something else.  Can’t saw that I’ve ever been body checked by an older German woman before this cruise!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Monday December 5th
I was really looking forward to Dubrovnik and it didn’t disappoint. It is a beautiful fortified town that has been very well maintained. We had no tour scheduled today so we took the shuttle into the old town and walked around the streets.
It’s a pity that the weather didn’t fully cooperate, it’s was a cool 13°C and overcast. I can only imagine how much more beautiful the city would be under sunlight.
Me, outside the main gates

I was immediately swept into the magic of the walls, the drawbridge, and the town crier selling the heart of Dubrovnik. The main street is wide and open to pedestrians and is lined with flags. We walked around and looked for the way up to the top of the walls to lookout.  When we finally found it we were a little tired and cold.
A few hours in to our tour, we decided to stop in a café for a break. We had cappuccinos and some local deserts a strudel and a torta od makarula.  I particularly enjoyed the torta od makarula  which had a dark chocolate and noodle filling inside a pie crust.  You read correctly, it isn’t a type, it’s a macaroni cake!
We did lots of touristy shopping in Dubrovnik, seems they have a lot of lavender and lace and they have the typical tourist t-shirts and nick-knacks.
A view, outside the main gates

In my short 4.5 hours in Dubrovnik, I was really taken in by the architecture and scenery.  Dubrovnik must have been quite the fortified city in its day.  I would have loved to see it in all its glory under the sun and with a little bit more heat, but it was still one of my favorite ports to date.  Plus, it’s another country I’ve now had the opportunity to visit.  This cruise has been great, allowing me to add Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Croatia to the list of countries I’ve visited.
One of the streets in Dubrovnik, near the wall

Tonight is our third and final gala dinner on the ship.  Tomorrow, Ravenna Italy.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Haifa, Israel, December 1st

After a day relaxing at sea where I went to the gym, read and floated like a buoy in the salt water pool in the middle of the ship, we were relaxed and ready for Haifa.  I was quite amazed by the pool and loved the feeling of floating on my back in the pool, in the middle of the ship, looking up at the blue sky; it was like I was floating in the sea.
As for Haifa, we had a private tour scheduled with Avi who was to take us around northern Italy.  So at 9:00 we met Avi in the parking lot of the port terminal and we left for the Sea of Galilee.  We started at the Mount of beatitudes where Christ did the Sermon on the Mount.  It was a lovely area overlooking the sea of Galilee, peaceful and well maintaining by an order of noun. 


Next, he took us a little down the mountain to Tabgha, we Christ performed the miracle of the fish and loaves.  There’s lovely little church built over the rock where Christ performed the miracle.  I can’t say felt any special connection to the area.  It was nice but I wasn’t in awe.  In Rome, at the Vatican, I felt like l was seeing something great, something special.  I guess because you can’t actually see anything, I really couldn’t wrap my head around the concept.  Maybe it’s because I don’t know the scriptures enough.
Rock of the Miracle of the Loaves

Where I really felt like I was seeing something fairly special was at our next stop: Capharnaum, where Jesus spent the last years of his life.  In that village overlooking the sea of Galilee, you have Peter’s village and a white Temple where Jesus gave sermons.  There is a fair amount of the fishing village left as well as the temple.  The view is amazing and can really understand why it was believed to be the Promise Land.  Dad even went to dip his toes into the sea!

From Capharnaum, we went to visit a Kabutz which was really disappointing.  It really didn’t provide any insight into the society or cult; however you want to see it.
We next went to the River Jordan which is the site where Saint John baptised Christ.  You could, if you so chose, to redo your baptism.  We skipped that part, but had a really good meal.  We ordered tabouleh and hummus with beef kebabs and the restaurant offered us about 10 different salads.  We had baba ganoush, tahini, marinated carrots, cabbage, some marinated peppers and tomatoes, a Greek salad.  We also sampled some local beers.  It was delicious and we really enjoyed it. 
The river Jordan is much greener then I expected, it reminds me of rivers in Western Canada.  Speaking of Canada, we met the local wildlife, the Israeli interpretation of the beaver.  Really, the looked like a cross between a beaver and a giant rat!

From there we went to Nazareth to see the church of the annunciation.  Again, neither Nazareth, nor the Church was what I expected.  Nazareth looks like a rundown town.  It looks poor but industrialised and not at all what I expected for such holy land.  The church that they built over the remains of the church of the annunciation is way too modern to my taste to represent the site.  I believe they could have done a better job of blending into the scenery. I was glad to see it but it wasn’t what I anticipated.
Overall, we had a great day with Avi and saw a lot of great places I never thought I would see.  By the time we got back to the ship around 6pm we were exhausted.  We had an early dinner then headed to bed early.  As you saw from my earlier post, the next day of exploration in Haifa was done on our own, where dad and I went to the gardens and walked down, culminating in a nice afternoon snack at Cheers!

Kalispera from Katakalon Greece

Kalispera from Katakalon Greece!
What a beautiful day in Katakolon and Olympia!  As we approached the port city of Katakolon we sailed through a pretty big rain storm.  We figured we were bound to get some bad weather on the trip so we packed out our coats and umbrellas.  But as we docked, the sun came out and in turned into quite a beautiful day, sunny and around 20°C. 
We had reserved a car for the day.  What was supposed to be a Mercedes was a Skoda, but it was large and comfortable.  Though Nikko’s English wasn’t great, I think I understood 20% of what he was saying, he was quite nice.  He dropped us at the archeological site in Olympia, told us to visit the museum and that he would be back to get us two hours later at 1:15.  We got into the site just ahead of the numerous buses from the ship.  We managed to avoid them for most of the time so we got a few pictures devoid of people.  I don’t think that would be possible in September or June.
One of the funny things about our trip is that everywhere we go, they tell us that they have the best olive oil.  So Nikko wanted to bring us to see how Olive Oil was made. Turns out it was quite interesting.  It’s the local olive oil community press and it was functioning when we went. Nikko even mentioned that he was making oil yesterday and would be back tomorrow to make more.
The area was hit by a very bad fire four year ago where 75 people died and house and entire forests were lost.  You can see the scars left behind along the Olympic Site, the hills of Chronos and the n earby villages.
WE then got to visit a very modern winery call Olympia winery.  The owner showed us around and then gave us a snack and wine tasting.  The Kalamata olives and olive oil were delicious.  Her wines were light and tasty without any heavy tannins or sulfites.  I bought a bottle of olive oil.  How delicious that will be with some bread, yum!
Nikko also very kindly offered us some wine that his brother in law made as well as some olive oil straight of the press when we went to visit.  Both are bottled in some plastic water bottles so we will need to sample these before we get off the ship.  He also gave us six gigantic oranges he picked from his orange tree while we were at Olympic site.
Katakolon and its people left quite a nice impression on us in a very short amount of time.
Olives on the Olympic Site

Remains at Olympia

Friday, December 2, 2011

Haifa, Israel

Day 7 (I think)

I'm sitting at Cheers Bar in the German Colony of Haifa having a Goldstar (local Amber Beer) and sharing a fajita. It's another beautiful day.  It's warm and sunny.
We took the bus to the top of Mount Carmel and took at look at the Baha'i Gardens.  The shrine is closed because of the Sabbath at sundown.  We made our way down the hill using sidestreets and got to see the backside of Haifa as well as the beautiful view.  It reminded me of taking a walk down the side of Mount Royal through Westmount and Outremont.  Some really nice sites and some not so pretty.

We have exactly 2 hours before the all on board signal. Then we're off to Katakolon Greece overnight.

Yesterday, we had our private tour of northern Israel.  We went to the Mount of the Beatitudes of the side of the sea of Galilee which was my favorite spot.  It's really a beautiful site and you can image how it must have been paradise on earth.

Gotta run.  More later on Israel.