no matter where you go, there you are

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cece's Advice #2: Don't Purchase Anything Without Checking the Price

Cece's Advice #2: Don't Purchase Anything Without Checking the Price

I fell victim to purchasing items, mainly food ones, without double-checking or asking about the price quite a few times. By assuming food items like a bag of chips, or even a box of small granola bars would be reasonably priced, even with the currency conversion, I quickly learned to ALWAYS check the prices for further purchases. My issues really only occurred in Paris but I'm not blaming the French for my problems. France, along with Austria, is an expensive country to begin with and as it was the first I visited I had all my problems there. But I did learn from them, hence why I am writing up this advice.

The first case of not asking the price was at the Opera Garnier. Since I was not able to see inside the theater, I decided to purchase postcards...something I imagined would cost 0.50-1 Euro each. I bought two and they ended up being like 3.50-4 Euro. I didn't think about it initially but when I did the Euro-Dollar conversion I'm pretty sure I swore a little. The 2nd instance was at the Eiffel Tower right before my night bike tour. I hadn't had time to get a mini meal or anything so I grabbed a King Size KitKat and a bag of potato chips. Yes, this was the Eiffel Tower so I expected the prices to be a little inflated, but it was 4.50Euro for both items. Once again the Euro-Dollar conversion hit me hard.

Finally, when I went to the mini-market store in Montparnasse I got cheese, small granola bars and pudding. The granola bars didn't have a price on them, but the box next to them which was bigger did so I assumed these would be around the same price. Doing the math after purchasing, the granola bars were priced at 5Euro, 1.5 times the amount of the other box. My reaction: GAH! Maybe I got the cheese price wrong or the pudding price wrong, but either way I didn't check on the price and language barriers made it hard to me to question it.

Which gets me to my advice for anyone traveling in a foreign country while trying to maintain a budget: don't purchase anything without checking the price first. This will make you feel better and maybe you'll save a few bucks. When abroad, and as money-conscious as I am, shocks to the system because you've spent way more than you expected aren't fun. They're just not. So take a few minutes of your time to make sure you're getting what you want for the price you think.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

return to Paris

After visiting Tours on Saturday day, I headed back to Paris early Sunday morning. I was planning on seeing a few more things in the area by Gare de Lyon that I didn't get to see when I was in the city before. And I had til 8PM to do since my train to Milan was an overnight one. The train ride back was uneventful and very quiet; it was 8AM on Sunday morning though. When I got back to Paris, we arrived at the Montparnasse station and since I had no Metro tickets or small bills or coins left, I went to find a small market to get some food and change. Yet, in Montparnasse on a Sunday everything is closed!! It took me like 15 minutes to find a place with reasonably priced food. And on the way to finding the place I ran into the people on the sidewalks who want you to sign up for things. And since it wasn't my first encounter with them, when my response of "no Francais" prompted them to speak in English I decided to say "no English" to get them to leave me alone. Gah, not the best 30 minutes of my life...

After getting food and getting on the subway I make it to the Paris Bercy station where my night train would be leaving from, and a train attendant said they had luggage storage there as well. However, they didn't and I had to go to Gare de Lyon to store my bag. After finally getting all my stuff situated in a locker, I was now ready to walk around and visit the Maison de Victor Hugo at the Places de Vosges and the Memorial de la Shoah. Upon nearing the Canal St. Martin I saw an internet cafe and was very happy to check my email. And I got a soda with it.

After spending a blissful hour with the internet, I move on to the Canal St. Martin and at the head of the canal, the Bastille. A very gorgeous statue in the center of a rotary.

Next, I continue onto the Places des Vosges, an upscale park area that's enclosed by a square residential complex with very expensive restaurants and art galleries on the ground floor. Victor Hugo lived here for a time and his former residence has been turned into a museum.

The Maison de Victor Hugo was very informative, but like a lot of museums it assumed you knew the basic history of his life. There was a particular woman, whom I can't remember the name of, in his life that was very influential and the information plaques kept mentioning her like we already knew who she was. I didn't, so it was a bit of a mystery of putting his life story together. There was an entire floor dedicated the photographs of Hugo that were taken by his son, I think, and maybe some that were taken by himself. There were numerous photos of his family included too. The upper floor was the apartment section and they included a map of the original layout as the current one had changed since Hugo lived there. In order to make the museum one of his life, instead of just the period Hugo lived there, each room was decorated in the style of a certain part of his life. They had furniture and decorations from his other residences, or in the style of his other homes in order to get the feel of what it was like to live like Victor Hugo.

When I exited the Maison it was raining and I didn't have my umbrella. Therefore since the Places des Vosges was covered all the way around I took a stroll and looked in the windows of all the art galleries and became very jealous of the people eating delicious looking entrees in the restaurants. At this point, the closest thing I'd had to a real meal was QuickBurger so the jealousy came fast and easy. I was really tempted to steal the bread out of baskets that were just sitting by the registers unattended. There were a lot of people there...they would have never noticed...but I didn't. The rain had let up some by the time I'd finished my loop around the park so I headed out to the Memorial de la Shoah.

The Memorial de la Shoah which opened in January of 2005 is "the largest research, information and awareness raising centre in Euripe on teh unprecedented history of the genocide of teh Juews during the Second World War" (from the guide the Memorial gave me). The Memorial was extremely informative, almost a little too much for me. I was fatigued, partially sleep-deprived and maybe a little jet-lagged so my concentration was limited and I could only absorb so much information. The Holocaust is also a very heavy subject so the information weighed down on my brain a little more than a basic museum.

The entrance to the museum leads you through the Wall of Names. It is pretty much what you'd expect when you hear "the Wall of Names." It is a series of walls with the first and last names and year of birth of the 76,000 Jewish men, women and children who were deported from France between 1942 and 44. They are presented by the year of deportation and in alphabetical order. It's a powerful thing when you see all those names listed as its a visual cue to a tiny, tiny portion of the people who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Once in the museum you descend downstairs into the Crypt. It is a symbolic tomb, a large empty space with a black marble Star of David in the center of the space. In the center lie the ashes of victims collected from various camps all over Europe laid among the soil from Israel. The star is really beautiful and I like it better than the memorial that is near Notre Dame.

In a portion of the wall in the crypt are books of remembrance which commemorate victims of the Shoah. There is also a back room attached which house the police files on the Jews; individual and family records of Jews who were persecuted, arrested and deported. This was another visual aid to process the amount of people who were deported and persecuted during the Holocaust. The number of boxes with files in them in this section was outstanding.

After visitng the crypt, I go down another floor to the permanent exhibition where the history of the Shoah is presented. This section was not large in terms of space, but the amout of information presented was enormous! I tried to read as much as I could, but like I said above...the heavy subject matter combined with my tired brain made it more difficult. What I was able to read and absorb was extremely interestng and informative and gave me a different perspective of the Holocaust. There were only 76,000 Jews deported from France so in comparison to the number of Polish Jews (which was in the millions), it's very small. But there is still a rich history of Jewish acceptance and living in France so to learn about that was really cool. At the end of the permanent exhibit was a memorial to the children deported from France. The small room has floor to ceiling, illuminated walls with photographs of only children who were victims of the Shoah. There are around 3,000 photos and it's a hard-hitting room.

After finishing with the museum, the sun was beginning to set and everything was closing so I started the trek back to Paris Bercy where I spend an hour or so reading a book. When my train arrived I boarded and experienced my first European night train. I will discuss more of this in another post dedicated to all train travel later but I will say it was an interesting experience. We depart Paris and head into the night towards Italy. Arrival time in Milan was 630AM.

Pictures - Facebook public links

So my sister has been asking me to put my pictures up on Facebook since I got home almost three months ago. And I've finally done so. Here are the public links to view them so you don't have to be a member. If they don't work, let me know. I might also post them to a more public photo place, but I haven't decided.

Part 1 - France (Paris, Tours and the Chateaus)

Part 2 - Italy (Pompei and Rome)

Part 3 - Italy (Siena, Pisa, Florence, Venice)

Part 4 - Germany (Munich) and Austria (Innsbruck)

Part 5 - Austria (Salzburg)

Part 6 - Austria (Vienna)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Tour de Tours

After two days in Paris, it was time to visit another part of France: the Loire Valley, home to over 300 chateaus along and around the Loire River. So early Saturday morning I hopped on a train headed south to Tours, one of the cities in the Central Loire Valley. I had a reservation on a small, half-day tour to 2 of the major chateaus, Chenonceaux and Chambord in the afternoon so the morning was open to wandering the city area. The train station is in downtown Tours and only a short walk to the gorgeous City Hall. From the station, I take the 15-20 minute walk to my hotel to drop off my bag and then make my way to the tourist office to pick up a map. On the way I buy a croissant and it is heavenly.

The city of Tours was so quiet compared to Paris. The population is only around 100,000 so its not a bustling metropolis but a beautiful residential area. Most the buildings are small and businessess take up only ground floors. There is also a lot of greenery with ivy and trees spread around. As there wasn't much to visit that was free I spent most of the time walking around gazing at the architecture and walking along the Loire River.

My favorite place in the city was the Cathedrale Saint Gatlen. Though not enormous as the Notre Dame, the cathredral was tall and skinny and to my fascination, not symmetrical.

Inside there was a very interesting altar comprised of two pieces of wood and a rock, and the pulpit was the first of many that I thought were very cool. Being a huge stone church, the temperature inside was probably 10 degrees colder than outside and it was freezing. Despite the cold though, right before I was about to leave the organist began to play a tune so I took a seat and just listened for a few.

The floor of the church was completely uneven and thoroughly worn so I really think it was the original stone. Yes, I was fascinated with that as well. It's all just so different from anything you'd find here in the US.

After the cathedral it was time to head down to the meeting point for the chateau tour. I didn't have to wait long for the van to show up and I was the only American and English as a first language person. There were women from Japan, a woman from Singapore and a couple from Brazil. Our guide was very nice and provided a great deal of information on the area and the chateaus we drove by. After 20 in the van though, I wished I wasn't as tired. Lack of sleep + riding in moving vehicles + narration switching between English and Japanese = me falling asleep. So while I would have loved to observe all the landscapes we drove through, I couldn't keep my eyes open. One thing I did see which was really cool were these homes that were literally built into the mountainside. All you could see were the door and front facade and the rest of it went into the hillside.

Upon arriving at Chenonceaux we were given an hour to tour the chateau and gardens. Chateau de Chenonceaux is the most visited chateau in the Loire Valley, if I'm not mistaken, and it is certainly an extremely interesting and beautiful piece of architecture. The house is built over the Indre River so it basically looks like a house built on top of a bridge. Its really outstanding and there is also a few large gardens and a maze as well as a fortified mill on the estate. Inside the castle the rooms are authentically furnished and decorated with renaissance era tapestries and furniture. The great hall which is the portion over the river is large and well, great.

The kitchen was the most interesting room cause it was built in the basement, but the basement for this specific architecture was in one of the footings. So to get from one part of the kitchen to the other you walk through the archway holding up the rest of the castle. When walking through you can look down and see the river and a small stairwell where drop-offs for the kitchen were done. If that made sense to any of you, I really liked that part.

As I only had an hour to visit the cheateau I was only able to visit the main garden and it was very pretty. It was late November so there weren't any flowers blooming, but everything was green and the view of the chateau was wonderful.

The second chateau we went to was Chambord, the largest in the Loire River Valley. Chambord's estate was MASSIVE and the grounds went on forever and ever. I don't remember the acreage but it was a LOT. Built originally as a hunting lodge, the castle was never finished and so of the 440 rooms, there are only about 40 which you can visit and of those only some are furnished.

The highlight of the castle was the double-helix stairwell rumored to be designed by Leonardo DaVinci. It's two circular staircases that ascend all three floors and never meet.

Besides the few rooms that can be visited, you can also walk around the roof, another highlight of the chateau. The roof is intricately designed and there are all these nooks and crannys and mini tower pieces that come from various points around the roof. Hard to explain, but really, really neat. Overall, I thought the chateau tour was pretty well done. Though it would end up being one of the more expensive things I would do on the trip, it was probably worth it as I wouldn't have gotten to see Chambord via public transportation. And I probably wouldn't have been able to see more than one chateau. The one problem I did have was there wasn't enough time to view the chateaus satisfactorily. With Chenonceaux I wanted to see more of the grounds and with Chambord I rushed through a few of the rooms in order to see everything. If I were to return to the Valley I think I would rent my own car therefor have more flexibility.

We arrived back in Tours around 6PM and I was thoroughly exhausted. I get back to my hotel, check in and relax. There's nothing in English on TV and so I end up watching some French children's programs while looking over plans for the next couple of days. Then I hit the sack early getting a very good night's sleep.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Musee du Louvre

Before arriving at the Louvre, I expected that I would enter from the plaza above and descend through the famed glass pyramid into the lobby of the museum. However, the Metro dropped me off somewhere else and following signs, I made my way through the underground mall into the lobby. Doing so I was able to pass under the inverted glass pyramid hanging from the ceiling which was very enjoyable to look at even though I had misconceptions about it and thought it was closer to the lobby.

Anyway, upon entering the lobby I was 1000x more grateful for my museum pass than ever. The crowds were huge, unlike anything I was expecting. It was a Friday night after all. Bypassing the massive crowds waiting in line to purchase their ticket, I entered the wing that pointed to the Mona Lisa. The DaVinci painting was certainly one thing I wanted to see and I figured I'd get it, and it's crowd, out of the way before seeing the rest of the place.

What to say about the Mona Lisa? While very nice to actually see in person, it would have been nicer if I actually saw it. Because of it's high popularity and the fact that it's been stolen before, you can't get closer than 15-20 feet and even then the painting is behind glass/plastic therefore reflecting the room's lights and everyone's camera flashes so that it becomes quite obnoxious.

The Mona Lisa isn't that large to begin with, just an average portrait size, so being put back so far makes enjoying her impossible. You can't look at colors or brush strokes. You would do better looking at a copy of it on your computer or in books or even a print out for a production of Annie.

Add in the fact that I don't like crowds 99% of the time, I was definitely not impressed with the Mona Lisa's presentation (Thanks, Louvre Management). I didn't have a chance to see the Mona Lisa to actually have an opinion on that actual painting.

Directly across from the Mona Lisa was an enormous canvas taking up an entire wall of Jesus eating dinner with people. It wasn't a Last Supper depiction but it looked a little similar to those kinds. I have no memory of who painted it or what it was called. It amused me though to see how such a grand painting like this was treated so differently from the tiny Mona Lisa. I then made my way through part of the Italian painting wing which would then lead me into the Egyptian and Etruscan art. While all the paintings were outstanding, a part of the museum I thought was fascinating was how the building itself was a piece of art. Each room was perfectly arranged and designed and the carvings in the walls and ceilings were intricate and beautiful. In the first few rooms I spent almost as much time staring at the ceiling as I did the paintings.

With almost all the paintings and artwork I viewed throughout my trip, I was in unflappable awe over the detail depicted in the works. Almost all featured humans or mythical creatures doing ordinary and extraordinary things and being able to see each muscle, hair, face and distinct action was amazing. I'm not really an art lover but I was, and still am, completely fascinated by how these works were created. In some ways, these inanimate canvases portray human behavior more accurately than film or television ever could. But more on that in a later post.

Moving on from the paintings, I made my way through the Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Etruscan collections. A lot of it was the same stuff over and over again so it didn't take too much time. However, the place is so huge that even if you walked without looking it would still take time to get from one place to the other. I even passed a couple sleeping on a bench so the place really tuckers you out.

And it's also very maze-like and I was came very close to being lost at one point. I wander through all the non-painting rooms that are on the ground and first floors and almost everything I see is spectacular. The rooms that are more spread out and have these giant statues in them are outstanding and I enjoyed them a lot.

I finally make my way to what I will call the indoor sculpture garden. It's a massive, open room with large glass windows and hundreds of sculptures placed throughout it's space. There are also side rooms attached with even more glorious pieces of art. This was one of my favorite places of the museum. It was quiet and still and each sculpture was different and unique therefore making the experience of viewing each one special. So awesome!

By this point though I was getting very tired. I'd been there about 2 hours and being on my feet the last two days was beginning to take its toll. Since I'd already seen a small portion of the paintings I decided I would skip the rest of those and instead see the Medieval ruins in the basement first and then go upstairs to Napoleon's apartments before calling it a night.

The Medieval Louvre area was both boring and interesting at the same time. While I was fascinated by the fact that there were this ancient wall from a former fortress under the museum, It was very uniform and simple and therefore didn't take much time to look at. Walking through it all was very cool, but besides its size, there was nothing else to drop your jaw at. Napoleon's apartments on the other hand were the exact opposite. If I'm not mistaken, the apartments in the Louvre provide visitors with examples of how Napoleon lavishly lived while ruling France. The 5 or 6 rooms are all massive, highly decorated and overwhelming to look at. Though absolutely gorgeous there is just so much going on that even taking your time isn't enough to soak it all in. There are paintings, chandeliers, draperies, other decorative art, elaborate furniture...a lot of stuff for one tiny little man.