Monday, August 24, 2009

On to Versailles

One of Phil's co-workers along with his wife and little girl picked us up in the morning and drove us out to Versailles. How to know you're in France? The 15 month old was gnawing on a French baguette for breakfast in her car seat. Very cute. My first impressions of Versailles? Very crowded and ridiculously huge, but a beautiful palace. Here's a view from the front.

And of course, what every king needs at his palace...his own chapel. Although it defeats the purpose when you place your seat at the front of the chapel looking out over the pews so that everyone is staring/singing/praying to you when facing front...

The Hall of Mirrors...

Marie Antoinette's bedroom...again, a bit over the top.

We walked around to the gardens after touring the palace. As if being out in the middle of nowhere wasn't enough for Louis the 14th, he had to add 250 acres of gardens. ponds, and even a canal to his palace. And you wonder why there was a revolution?

After having a nice lunch at a little outdoor cafe somewhere in the maze of the gardens, we drove back to Paris and were dropped off at the last place on my list of places to see, Notre Dame.

We took a taxi back to the hotel (metro? no thanks) and had dinner at The Hard Rock Cafe. Where, I might add, that the servers have obviously been trained on how to work at a restaurant where probably most of the people there aren't from France. They were actually friendly, didn't make you feel like you demanded their first born when you politely asked for the check, and generally didn't look at you like you were the scum on the bottom of their shoe.
After a good night's sleep, Phil walked me over to the bus stop on his way to the office and I hopped on the bus that would take me to Charles de Gaulle. And the sweet ending? It was less dividend miles to get a business class ticket home than a coach seat. Nice. Now where else can I go using the 300,000+ miles that Phil has racked up?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Up Close & Personal With the Police in Paris

Day 2 in Paris started out like every other day. We got up and ready to meet Mark and Janelle at the Eiffel Tower for some serious touristy stuff. We hopped on to the metro and thus began our journey into the abysmal day. I noticed this teen girl in front of me acting funny as I tried to make my way into the metro car. She was moving very slowly and just acting weird. I thought, "Just move in, all ready. People are trying to get on." She shifted over in front of Phil as I grabbed the pole to hang on and turned around to face the door that I had just walked through. As the metro began to move very slowly forward a group of 3 or 4 teen girls (including the weird acting one) suddenly shoved their way through the crowd standing around us and pushed the button to open the door.

As they all jumped off onto the platform I thought (naive me), "Good thing they realized they got on the wrong train before we really got going." I leaned back to Phil and jokingly asked him if he still had his wallet. Not jokingly, and in a voice that can only be described as sheer panic, along with a frantic patting of all his pockets he replied (very loudly), ", I don't." Yes...Phil just got pick-pocketed by a group of teen girls. Who are so good at what they do, I might add, that he didn't even feel the one who snagged his wallet...from his front pocket.

We jumped off the metro at the next stop, and after letting off a bit of steam (there's an electrical box with a nice big dent on the front of it at the Opera stop on the Paris metro, if you're ever inclined to take a look) we made our way to the station attendant who directed us to the nearest police station above ground.

Of course the police station was closed. We were somewhere in Paris with no credit cards, three euros to our name, no metro tickets, and no clue. There was a phone number to call on a plaque outside of the station so Phil called and a policeman said they would send a car our way. When the car arrived, we gave a description of the girls (which, by the way, they described perfectly because apparently small groups of Eastern European teen girls are notorious for pick-pocketing on the metro) although they said we'd never see the wallet again. They drove us to a central station where I proceded to try and tell the policeman what happened for the police report while Phil was on the phone with credit card companies trying to cancel all his cards. What a pain. Even more of a pain when the person whose cards have been stolen has accounts in the US, Australia, and the UK. Lots of calls, lots of headaches. Not to mention the stolen US dollars, British pounds, Swiss francs, Euros, Paris metro tickets, London tube pass, etc...

Hours later, we emerged from the police station, found out we were on the Champs Elysees (not quite how I pictured first seeing the famous street) and given a map to follow to find our way back to the hotel...on foot. And here's where I add that I think in the US, we would've been given a ride back to our hotel seeing as we had no money to get cab or the metro. The French...

After all the drama of the morning we did meet up with Mark and Janelle for lunch and then toured Sacre-Coeur, a church in Montmarte with an amazing view of the city.

We then took the metro (my debit card worked at an ATM so we could take out some euros...whew) to the Arc de Triomphe to look around.
After the Arc, we walked over to Hotel des Invalides. It was originally built as a hospital for veterans returning from war but now houses Napoleon's tomb.

Off to the side was a very pretty garden...

We all had dinner at a little cafe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and then walked over to the tower to finally see it (at least for Phil and I).

A bit later we stopped at a little restaurant for crepes and coffee and had a great view of the Eiffel Tower all lit up.

We walked back to the Arc de Triomphe and then a bit down a very crowded Champs Elysees before we parted company. Not really feeling like another trip on the metro, we took a cab back to our hotel. After getting to our room, Phil jokingly says to me, "Hey...check your wallet and make sure you still have it." I had left it in my purse which was in my suitcase for safe keeping and all. guessed it...a hotel employee with a key card apparently thought it was ok to go into my suitcase and then into my purse and steal all my money but 4 dollars. Seriously?!!??

And the worse part of it? After calling the front desk, then getting the run around the next day, the hotel really didn't think it was that big of an issue to aggressively pursue. Truly. Here it is almost a month later and we still haven't heard a thing from the hotel. So...if you're ever in Paris looking for a nice hotel to stay in, and you want to keep all the money you came with, do not choose the Banke Hotel on Rue de Layfette. Now...on to Versailles.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Paris Day One

The day started out bright and early with the taxi coming to pick us up at 5:15 am to take us to the train station. As we passed near Westminster Abbey and got an eyeful of Big Ben just could not resist leaning to Phil and saying, "Look kids...Big Ben." A little Nat'l Lampoon's European Vacation humor...but really, it was 5:30 in the morning and I thought myself hilarious. The train took us through the Chunnel and on to Paris. Another taxi took us to our our hotel, Banke Hotel on Rue de Layfette. It's a converted bank building (hence the name) and has quite the domed lobby, along with more black and red than I've seen in one area in a while.

I walked with Phil to his office building so I knew where he was and then armed once again with a trusty street map began to make my way to the Louvre. I knew it was south of where I was and if I hit the Seine River I'd gone too far, so with that nugget of knowledge I began my trek. Yep...I concede I'll never win any awards for map reading (which I blame on never being a Girl Scout) but eventually did find the Louvre. Impressively huge. According to my brochure it houses 35,000 pieces of art in more than 645,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space. much of that can I see in one afternoon?

And what's the yellow-shirted guy pointing at? No idea.

The glass pyramid is indeed the entrance to the Louvre. Got my bag checked, made my way down the escalators, bought my entrance ticket, picked up my museum guide in English, and joined the "herd of cattle" on it's way to the Mona Lisa. Just how many people did I have to go through to get a picture? How many tourists elbowed me in the back and side as they clamored for a picture as well? You make the call.

Yes, that wee, tiny picture is the famous Mona Lisa. Honestly, I expected a bit more. I mean, nice and all but really kind of small.

On to the next "must see" according to my brochure. The Winged Victory of Samothrace. I wasn't aware that I must see it, but who am I to argue with the brochure.
Here it is in all it's glory. On to the Venus de Milo...after fighting another crowd to get up close.

Did I mention more than 645,000 sq. ft of exhibition space at the Louvre? Arts of Islam, Sculptures, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities, The Medieval Louvre, Oriental Antiquities, Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, Prints and Drawings, French Paintings, German, Flemish, and Dutch Paintings, German, Flemish, Belgian, Russian, Swiss, and Scandanavian Paintings, etc. Honestly...after awhile, you've seen one painting and/or sculpture, you've seen them all. I've never claimed to be a huge patron of the arts...

I left the Louvre and impressively, I might add, found my way back to the hotel to wait for Phil to get off of work. Good friends of ours from our Cedarville days happened to be in France celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary so we had arranged to meet up that night for dinner. We found a cozy little place in the Latin quarter with wood-beamed ceilings and stucco walls and started a very good meal with some cheese fondue. Yummy.
We walked over to the Seine River and took a boat ride down the Seine. Just lovely. Talking and laughing with good friends, the Eiffel Tower, along with the entire city all lit up...priceless. On to day two. Have you ever seen Paris while in the backseat of a police car before spending your entire morning at a police station? I can now say that yes...yes, I have. Good times.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

One of the best museums in London...

On Thursday of my stay in Europe, Phil headed off to work and I made my way over to the Canary Wharf stop of the tube. After getting off at the Elephant & Castle stop (how British does that sound?), armed with my trusty street map of London I began my walk to find the Imperial War Museum. I had wanted to see it when Phil and I were in London three years ago, but alas, not enough days to squeeze in one more museum.

After a few stops and starts, a couple of "just where am I?" moments, after ducking in to a bus station when the sky opened up and began to pour ('d think I'd be carrying the umbrella I had stuffed into my suitcase now that we were in London), I finally made it to the museum. The building is on the grounds of a really nice park that used to house a famous insane asylum called Bedlam. (No, I'm not making this up.) They actually used to chain the really crazies and put them on display for people to line up and watch. Truly. The picture below is the front of the museum. I'm sure the gun display wasn't there when it was the insane asylum. (Although that is an interesting thought.) And why are we all milling about out front? More on that in a bit.

And the inside? What a fantastic museum. Four floors to wander around in to my heart's content. Read every single plaque and display? Why yes, I could because Phil wasn't with me. (One of my quirks if I'm at a museum that really interests me. Did he know that before he married me? Probably not.) Covering every war and military action that Britain has been in since WWI, I was in museum heaven.

From planes, rockets, and tanks...

to walking through a London street during the Blitz of WWII as well as a WWI trench...
to a display on the Winter War between Finland and Russia in WWII (just for you, dad)...

to Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, up to the very latest happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even a whole wing dedicated to the "Secret War"- spy stuff with MI5 and MI6. And that wing was where I was when an alarm siren started going off along with an automated voice over the loud speaker asking everyone to quickly make their way to the nearest exit. My first reaction was to wonder if this was part of the exhibit. Do I try to find the nearest exit? Deciding that was the best option, I soon found myself swallowed up in the mass exodus of people making their way down the stairs and out the front doors.
As were shuffling along, I heard people wondering out loud what was going on. Then I heard a female voice directly behind me say, "'s probably just a bomb." Uh...after turning around to get a good look at the lady behind me (after all, I was just in spy world...had to memorize what she looked like in case I needed to report her to the authorities) as well as wondering where the heck she was from that a bomb was a common occurence, we made our way outside. Turns out it was just a very small kitchen fire in the museum cafe. After the all clear, I made it back upstairs to where I left off and continued on.
All in all, six glorious hours of examining every inch of the museum. I'm sure Phil was glad he had to work. I took the tube back to our apartment and then later met Phil for dinner. We walked to a pub called The Cat and the Canary (again, how British sounding is that?) where I had my perennial British favorite- fish and chips. So good. We went to bed early because the taxi was picking us up at 5:15 am to take us to the train station. It's on to Paris...

Monday, August 3, 2009

Greenwich (That's pronounced Gren-itch), England

Phil and I flew from Milan to London on Monday night. My first impression of our apartment in London? Very Ikea-ish. Not quite the spectacle of our Sydney place but a close second. It has a teeny balcony (not quite enough room for a chair, but you could stand out there) off of the living room overlooking the Thames River as well as the venue where Michael Jackson would've been doing his 50-event London tour this fall. The apartment's other claim to fame? The washing machine (oddly in the kitchen by the oven) is also the dryer. Yes, you add detergent, put your clothes in, and then after going through the wash cycle it will also dry them. How? No idea, but very intrigued by the whole thing.
Once again Phil walked me around so I could find his office building the next day when I was on my own. A bit confusing. We walked over the suspension bridge, in the lobby of one building, down the escalator, into an underground mall, down another escalator, into the Canary Wharf stop of the tube (English-speak for subway) up another escalator, into another mall (where we stopped for a late dinner at Wagamama- a noodle place. See I'm branching out. I've discovered I like dumplings.), down another escalator, up another escalator, into an office building, round the corner, up another escalator into the lobby of his building. Seriously...did he really believe I'd remember all that for the next day?

But, amazingly enough (has the Amazing Race dream just been re-planted?), I managed the whole route the next day and met him for lunch in the cafeteria of his office's building. And yes, just ham and swiss on the whole grain bread. No, I don't want mayonaise. Nope, no lettuce or mustard. Certainly no on the cucumbers. Just ham and cheese.

After leaving Phil to slave away at work, I hopped on the DLR (which stands for Docklands Light Rail-basically the above ground subway) and headed towards Greenwich. Great little town.
I headed over to the Royal Observatory. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 "for the purpose of finding longitude at sea." Here's a view of the Observatory in Greenwich Park (which, for all you Olympic fans (Karen) will be site of all the equestrian events in the 2012 London Olympics.) The little red ball at the top of the tower is the Time-Ball which is one of the world's earliest public time signals. (Yes, I'm copying this from my brochure.) It continues to fall at 13:00 every day.

And let me tell you...that is a serious hike up to the Observatory. A closer look...

And just what is that crowd of people on the other side of the gate? They are all clamoring to get their picture on the Prime Meridian. Yes...I did the same cheesy thing and below is me with one foot in the Western Hemisphere and the other in the Eastern Hemisphere.

What? You don't believe that little line is the Prime Meridian? No, really it is. But you're right...a bit anti-climatic.

The view was great at the top of the hill. See the cluster of buildings on the right? That's where Phil was right at that moment slaving away at work. Stinks to be him.

The building right in front is the Old Royal Naval College which I toured as soon as I headed back down the hill. And after that, I took in the National Maritime Museum, a short walk away. Pretty good.

After getting back on the DLR, I met Phil for dinner at an Argentinian beef place called Gaucho. Mmm...beef. Then it was to bed (because yes, another late dinner) because I had places to go in the morning. Tomorrow...London.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

On To Milan

Phil and I took the train from Venice back to Milan on Sunday night. We got to the hotel courtesy of our female cab driver. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it just struck me odd that our driver was a woman. We threw our stuff in the room and headed out to walk around a bit. A few blocks from our hotel was this giant cathedral called Duomo. Apparently it's pretty popular and everyone knows about it, but me, knowing nothing about Milan had no clue it existed. At any's the entire area, known as Piazza Duomo.

The building just to the left of the church is called the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele...otherwise known as a shopping mall. Definitely fits the bigger name. We headed back to the hotel because Phil had to get up early to head in to the office. Oh yeah...the reason why we were in Italy to begin with.
The next morning after breakfast (and let me just say here that you can always pick out the American businessman at an overseas hotel breakfast buffet by the massive piling of food on his plate compared to the locals) I walked with Phil over to his office so I knew where he was. I headed back to Duomo to take a tour inside. No pictures allowed inside but here's a few from the outside so you can see just how massive this cathedral is.

I walked around for a bit but then went back to the hotel and took the elevator up to the roof to go out to the Garden Terrace. Took some pictures and then settled down to read for a bit. (One book down...four left to read.)

At the top of every hour (yes, I was up there for a few hours) the bells in the basilica tower on the right would start to ring. (And yes, I did picture the wedding scene in The Sound of Music. What is it with Europe that makes me think of that movie?)

I explored the city a little more than stopped at good ol' McDonald's for lunch. For those who've been following our adventures since our time in Australia will remember that I don't like to try new foods and have made it a personal goal to eat at a McDonald's in as many countries that I can. (Not really a social experiment or anything, I just like their cheeseburgers.) The McDonald's was in that fancy building next to Duomo, and if you thought that outside was ornate, take a look at the ceiling.

We had dinner with a work associate of Phil's and his wife at this very nice restaurant. The longer I've stayed in Europe, the more I'm realizing that over here, nobody eats dinner at around 6:00 or so like in the States. They eat later and take much longer than I'm used to. We sat down at 8:30 pm and were finishing up at 11:30 pm. Seriously. And the restaurant was still pretty full. And the lost in translation moment? At the beginning of the meal when the waiter asked us, "Gas or still?" Uh...are you asking if I want gas with my meal, because I can tell you right now that I would prefer not to have any of that, thank you. Turns out he meant sparkling water or still water. Oh...good to know.

The next morning Phil again left for work while I, armed with two street maps, was determined to find the bus stop associated with the big, red Milan sightseeing bus. You know the ones that take you all around the city and you can hop on and hop off at any stop and do the tourist thing to your heart's content? Well...I have truly nailed the lid on the coffin of my dream to compete in The Amazing Race. Even armed with 2 maps, I wandered that city for a good hour trying to find the stupid bus stop. tourist bus for me. So I gave up and went shopping instead. Then back to the roof top of the hotel to read some more before Phil came back and we headed to the airport to fly to London. Tomorrow...London.