Thursday, October 21, 2010

Arrival in Prague, Kafka, Funicular, and Charles Bridge

October 6, 2010 (Wednesday)

The cab we ordered for 6am turned up around 6:25am. Our flight to Prague was at 8:25am, and I expressed some concern about the timing. The cab driver, however, raced us – and I literally mean "raced us" – to the airport. Despite the heavy traffic, we arrived at 7am. There was no line to check-in, no wait at security, and no problems. We took a bus out to the Smart Wings plane, boarded, and took off on time.

I checked a carry-on so I could take along the waiter’s corkscrew.

We arrived at the Prague airport at 10am, retrieved my bag, and bought a couple of transit tickets at an airport stand.

A note about public transit in Prague: it is cheap, efficient, and easy. For 26 Czech Korunas each ($1.49 as of this posting), we were able to transfer between a bus and the metro to get into old Prague, roughly a 30-45 minute trip.

We took bus 100 to the Zličín stop, transferred to Metro Line B and got off at Náměstí Republiky. After some brief map checking, we found the street we needed and checked into a gorgeous room at the Art Deco Imperial Hotel.

This room was by far the nicest I have stayed in. The bathroom walls were tiled with a richly veined dark marble.

The hotel restaurant, Café Imperial, was decorated in lovely, large art deco mosaics.

We ate lunch at Café Imperial, squeezing between business men and women in their suits and ties. We had Pilsner Urquells, and I ordered the potato soup to start and then braised beef with mashed potatoes. Jer had the club sandwich with a fried egg on it.

After this delicious meal, we explored. On our way to the Charles Bridge, we stopped at the Tourist Information area under the Astronomical Clock in Wenceslas Square and bought a Prague Card. This card allows free entry into a few locations and discounts on others. Very worthwhile.

Across the Charles Bridge (now crowded with tourists and people selling photographs, jewelry, and caricatures) we stopped at the Kafka Museum and used the Prague Card to buy discounted tickets. This museum was interesting – all about Kafka’s life with some interpretative installations to set the mood, such as a darkened room full of black metal filing cabinets, selectively forced open and lit to reveal certain documents and books. A model of a strange torture device, with what looked like a clay person face down in pain, wires coming out of his back. Another room with a few chairs and a continuously looping black and white video of shadowy, fragmented images.

The icing on this absurdity sundae was our visit coincided with a high school field trip. The place was soon packed with bored students, aimlessly shuffling through the place, totally bored.

On leaving, we used our Prague Cards to visit Lesser Tower and climbed to the top to get some overhead shots past the Charles Bridge.

Later we stopped at a traditional Czech restaurant and ordered starters -- nakladaný hermelin (a soft cheese marinated in oil, garlic, and spices), ham, bread, and mustard – and two dark Masters. Delicious.

Refreshed, we decided to find the Funicular, which takes riders up to the top of Petrin Hill.

This is a Funicular

Petrin Hill is known for its great views of Prague, its rose park, Lookout Tower (a miniature Eiffel Tower likeness at 60m tall), observatory, and Mirror Labyrinth. We used our Prague Cards to visit all of it. And let me just say, climbing to the top of an Eiffel Tower copy is still exhausting. Great views though.

We took the Funicular back down, walked to our hotel, visited the hotel bar for a couple of Pilsners (awesome bartender named Michael), and slept.

Versailles and Victor Hugo in the Marais

October 5, 2010 (Tuesday)

We walked across the river to Gare d’Austerlitz and found the ticket counter. We purchased two round-trip tickets for RER C out to Versailles Rive Gauche, and made the 45-minute trip out to the Palace of Versailles. While waiting to leave and trying to figure out the difference between long and short, we befriended a young woman from London named Mary, originally from the Philippines. She was excited about the Takashi Murakami installation at the palace. She was also worried her "smelly food" would offend us. It was just leftovers from the day before.

Rain streaked the train windows on our way out.

When we arrived at the golden gates of the palace the rain had turned to a drizzle, so we started with the gardens. I always wanted to see the gardens.

We walked the grounds for a long time, down to the Apollo Fountain– the sun god in his chariot, racing to light the sky; His efforts were appreciated on that overcast morning. Then we walked back through the hedges to see Bosquet de l’Encélade locked behind a gate. This fountain is stunning, even obstructed. It depicts the fallen titan, Enceladus, as he is consumed by lava, struggling to break free.

Back at the palace it was just noon and we paid for rides on the Petit Train to take us on a slow, bumpy ride over cobblestones out to Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s residence. The château was built in the 1760’s and can be described as simple and elegant.

We hopped back on the train and rode out to the Grand Canal to eat lunch at Le Restaurant La Flottille. Jer had a crepe, I had a glass of red wine and a croque madame.

After taking the train back to the palace we went through security again and used our Museum Pass to enter the grand halls. I was surprised how everything came together in a picturesque, overwhelming, ostentatious whole since previously I’d only seen these kinds of ornate pieces orphaned in museums. Seeing the art and architecture as it was meant to be displayed was very powerful. I was also pleased to see the Hall of Mirrors. Beautiful.

It was a long day at Versailles. We rode the RER back to Gare d'Austerlitz and transferred to Metro line 5. We got off at the Bastille stop, saw the open square and monument, and followed a walking tour from one of the guidebooks through the Marais. It was drizzling again.

At the Bastille square we stopped to get our bearings and spread out our map. A teenage boy holding a skateboard asked if we needed help. I have to say that, although it is a stereotype, rudeness was not a quality I observed in Paris.

We ended up at the corner of Place des Vosges and saw the apartment Victor Hugo rented in 1832. I was surprised how much I enjoyed the interior decoration, as well as his drawings on the walls. There was a chinoiserie salon I particularly didn’t want to leave.

By now our feet hurt. We continued to walk through the Marais. I stopped at a Jadis et Gourmand, a chocolate seller and bought a small box of confections. We admired the cute stores and bars along the route, then took the Metro back to Gare de Lyon and ate at Le Duc de Richelieu. I had the terrine de foie de volaille (pate), scallops, and a glass of white wine. It was the only restaurant on the trip where we had to ask a waiter to translate the menu because we were completely lost. (Je suis perdue)

We ate the chocolates in the hotel room, packed our carry-ons, and slept.

Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees

October 4, 2010 (Monday)

We started late on Monday and on the way to the Panthéon bought lunch at the train station – a quiche legume (vegetables), another jambon et fromage sandwich, and two café crèmes. We rode out to Châtelet-Les Halles, transferred to RER B and rode out to the Luxembourg stop.

Outside the Panthéon

The Panthéon is yet another epic piece of architecture. The interior features an airy dome, under which Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the Earth with his pendulum. Beneath the main level is a secular mausoleum – the final resting place for many famous French citizens including Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, and Alexandre Dumas.

Resting place of Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Emile Zola

We walked back to Notre Dame to ascend the towers, but we missed the cut-off time by fifteen minutes so we walked back across the river to the Hotel de Ville stop. I bought a chicken nems (like an eggroll) and a café (espresso) at a stand.

We took the Metro out to the Arc de Triomphe and climbed 282 steps to the top, where we enjoyed panoramic views of Paris. Eventually we climbed back down and walked along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, in search of a place to eat.

The choices were all too touristy, so we went down a side street (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and picked a brasserie at random, which for me was one of the best meals of the trip. I ordered risotto with mushrooms and roasted chicken on top. Jer had thick steak and fries. For dessert we shared a chocolate mousse.

All risotto I consume in the future will be compared to the risotto I ate that night.

After dinner, we took the Metro back to Gare de Lyon, back to the hotel and sleep.

The Louvre, the Seine, and the Eiffel Tower

October 3, 2010 (Sunday)

We were up around 10am and went down to the breakfast buffet. The automated espresso machine involved a packet and a button; I mostly made it work. For hot food there were scrambled eggs, grilled tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, and baked beans. There were also some pastries, a few fruit options, yogurt, cereal and water with or without gas. Breakfast was included in our rate.

From Gare de Lyon we took Metro line 1 to the Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre stop. It took some finding, but we wandered through the mall past long lines, up, and outside to catch our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the famous Louvre Pyramid, in search of Passage Richelieu (PR). PR is where we could skip the long lines into the Louvre using our Museum Passes. I asked an official and he pointed us to it.

As a side note, during the previous month there had been at least two threats to French monuments, so all through the trip – and here was the first place we observed it – we saw uniformed military carrying large automatic weapons, pacing the open square, eyeing the crowds.

We found the correct entrance and joined a line of about 5 people. We put our bags through the scanner and entered the Louvre immediately. This benefit alone makes the Paris Museum Pass worth purchasing.

We spent about four hours wandering through the three wings of the Louvre. First, we went to see the Mona Lisa, just like everyone else. But we saw other things too: Winged Victory, a medieval moat, large Egyptian pieces, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, Cupid and Psyche, beautifully carved marble statues where the flesh looked real, intricately applied ceilings, many busts and paintings...

At some point we shared a chicken sandwich, chips, and a bottle of water from the museum café. From the Louvre we walked to Musée d’Orsay. Our passes allowed us to go in the group entrance, which was a slightly shorter line. At this point jet lag was beginning to catch up with us. The museum is in an old train station that has been renovated, a huge, beautiful building. We saw a Rodin, a Van Gogh self-portrait, Manet and Monet… I was most touched by the Van Gogh, full of blue chaotic swirls. Also, a painting – I forget the artist – of a large dinner party where the lights seemed to sparkle out of the paint.

My art preference is towards thickly applied paint on a canvas full of energy and implied movement.

We left and ate at a café overlooking the Seine. We sat on the sidewalk next to a lot of traffic and marveled at the brazenness of drivers. Along with beers, I ordered salmon bellinis which came with crème fraiche, dill, onion, and a lemon wedge. Jer had a croque monsieur. For dessert we shared crème brulee. All of it tasted excellent.

Spirits refreshed, we took the Metro out to the Eiffel Tower to watch the sunset. Neither of us felt the urge to climb to the top, so we contented ourselves with walking around the park. I was asked to take photos of many tourists with their cameras in front of the monument. I must not have looked like a potential camera thief with the D700 around my neck.

As the sky darkened, the tower lit up beautifully. We walked back to the Metro and rode to Gare d’Austerlitz. From there we walked back across the river to our hotel room and sleep.

Arrival in Paris: Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle

October 1 to October 2, 2010 (Friday to Saturday)

I woke at 5:15am on Friday, October 1, and hopped out of bed excited. The previous night I packed my carry-ons and laid out my clothes by the sink. All l I needed was to shower, dress, wake Jer, and wait for the car service to show at 6:45am.

For the trip I’d settled on Tom Bihn’s Tri-Star as my main bag and for the cameras, the Lowepro Stealth Reporter.

I carried a Nikon D700 for me and my old Nikon D70 for Jer. There was also a portable 60 GB hard drive, a flash, a couple of extra lenses, a small tripod, and a backup CompactFlash card and battery.

The car ride was nice and fast. On the way I realized I’d forgotten my jacket and then decided not to care. SeaTac was uneventful. We arrived in Dallas/Fort Worth about a half hour earlier than scheduled, which made me happy. It’s a great airport, full of light and easy seating. We took the Skylink high-speed train to our terminal and settled in at Cousins Bar-B-Q. (Beef Brisket, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes with gravy.)

Paris is nine hours ahead of Seattle. We arrived at Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (aka Roissy) at 9am on Saturday, October 2 – about an hour and a half ahead of schedule. No bags to claim and customs was fast – a simple Passport stamp, no forms – and we were on our way. First stop, Tourist Information in Terminal 2 to buy the Paris Viste Carte (1-3 zones, 5 days) – enabling us unlimited and unrestricted travel around Paris -- and a Paris Museum Pass (4 days) – enabling us access to an array of museums, monuments, and attractions plus line-skipping at the Louvre.

A helpful woman at the tourist desk told us there was an issue with the trains, so we opted to take a taxi to our hotel, the Holiday Inn – Bastille, which was actually next to the train/metro station, Gare de Lyon, and not the Bastille.

The hotel was nicely decorated. Our room was on the sixth floor up a small lift. We were determined to stay awake and beat the jet lag, so we unpacked, got the camera gear together, put items in the safe, and walked over to Gare de Lyon to check it out. On the way I tried out my French for the first time at a boulangerie and said “Bonjour, madame. Je voudrais une jambon et fromage s’il vous plait.”

We shared the ham and cheese sandwich on the steps of the station and people watched.

The station was huge and impressive. We decided to stretch our legs and walked along the Seine river out to Notre Dame Cathedral. For caffeine we bought a Coke at a street stand. Entrance to the cathedral was free and the line wasn’t long. We walked through Notre Dame with our heads back, admiring the sheer size and stained glass and, for my part, the ceiling. Four years of studying art history made me a little obsessed with gothic architecture and pointed arches.

Outside and downstairs we used the Paris Museum Pass for the Crypt of Notre Dame de Paris. Around the 1860’s buildings were torn down in front of the cathedral, revealing artifacts and foundations dating to pre-Roman times. Among these, the crypt preserves Roman ramparts, the remains of rooms heated by a system of underground furnaces and pipes, and displays models of early Paris. It was fascinating.

From there we walked to my personal favorite, Sainte-Chapelle, a Gothic chapel. The Museum Pass didn’t allow us to line-skip, so we waited to go through security and have our bags X-rayed. It’s difficult to describe the interior of the upper chapel. You have the sense of great height, light, and air. The walls are almost entirely stained glass floor-to-ceiling full of vivid color and scenes from the Bible. This was the primary church I wanted to see in person. I sat and stared at the walls for a long time.

Hunger took us away eventually. We settled on "Les Deux Palais" across the street. I had a beef filet with pepper sauce with a glass of Sancerre and one of Bordeaux. It was a good meal.

We walked back to the hotel down a street lined with touristy shops. I bought a couple bottles of wine for the room and a waiter’s corkscrew. We got back to the hotel at 5:30pm and I promptly fell asleep.

Lattes and mental gymnastics

My travel narrative is now 12 single-spaced pages in Microsoft Word. There are still two days left, I ran out of steam last Sunday, and I still need to describe the Vatican and the Appian Way. Simple! Of course everybody's over it already and I haven't even posted. Bummer-ific.

I hit a mini wall with my diet today when I decided I was sick of Lean Cuisine. I ate my Butternut Squash Ravioli through the tantrum, but I ate it sadly. So sadly. And when I was done I walked to Starbucks and got a non-fat, no whip grande pumpkin spice latte, which is not as good as a full fat, lots of whip, venti latte but suffices in a pinch.

Mexican food sounds really good right now.

Maybe I will eat six triscuits and a laughing cow cheese wedge instead.

That's as good, right? Stupid diet.

At the last Weight Watchers meeting the leader asked how many of us were in this for life. Pretty much everyone raised their hand but me. I'm taking this crap day by day, I am not all in for life.

Admitting that would crush my spirit, even if it's true.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Photoblog announcement

Administrative update (apologies if this is old news): My photoblog is now on Facebook. Click here to like the page and follow along.

As for the rest, I'm slowly adjusting to my old routine. The cats are giddy to have us back. Chiana follows me around and jumps in my lap if I sit still for a moment. Vash never gets all that giddy, except to resume his spot on my legs every night and purr like a motorboat.

There is an overwhelmingly real possibility I will be playing in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign as of next week. I'm not sure if this is like Fight Club and I'm not supposed to talk about it. So until I find out otherwise, I will share that I'm excited and I look forward to building a character.

Last time I played any sort of IRL role-playing game, my character was created by someone who didn't like me. I ended up playing an incredibly charismatic, beautiful woman with no skills whatsoever. My chief combat move was persuasion, which involved a lot of dice throws to see if I could talk someone into something. No killing. In fights I had to stand behind the group and wait it out.

And that's not how I roll. (See what I did there?)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A cross-post and Lightroom praise

I've been awake since 3am, however I went to sleep at 3pm the day before so don't give me any sympathy. Jet-lag still appears to be an issue.

With all my free quiet time, I fired up a series of Lightroom tutorials. I've owned the product for over a year and never used it. Such inertia. And now I come to find out it's an awesome application, with so much going on. I am mightily impressed.

I won't cross-post too many of these, but here's what I just put up on the photoblog after using Lightroom for the first time:

Eiffel Tower at Twilight, Couple

Maybe you are wondering where are my Europe trip updates and I will tell you. Since I returned I've been writing a narrative of our adventures, which I plan to post incrementally. The words have taken longer than expected, and then I plan to insert photos as well, so it's a beast.

I love October in Seattle. I wonder if I can persuade Jer to go to the Elysian with me today and have some pumpkin beer on tap.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Back in the country

I don't know what time it is or where I am. I mean, there's a clock next to me but it's been lying lately. My body thinks it's 9 hours later than it is so I'm at my desk at 12:25am thinking I should go to bed, however I'd like to wait until after the pictures copy off the portable hard drive.

Does any of this make sense? Let me back up a step.

Jer and I just spent two weeks travelling in Paris, Prague, and Rome. I took a total of 3501 pictures (about 39 GB worth), breaking my previous picture dry spell of the last two years. I won't be posting all of them but there will be a few. Likely at the photoblog. I'm pretty excited by some of them.

I also took notes everyday so I'll try to post some of the text that goes with the pictures here.