Thursday 8 March 2012
Our blog has moved to www.travelingchandlers.blogspot.com
The Traveling Chandlers
Thursday 8 March 2012
Our blog has moved to www.travelingchandlers.blogspot.com
Tuesday 2 August 2011
August 2, 2001
Elk Grove, California
Greetings from Elk Grove!
After our week in sunny Greece, Manuela and I returned to Graz last Tuesday. We hoped to take a one or two day trip to Croatia's coast on the Adriatic Sea with her friend Doris, but there wasn't enough time. We spent the last week of our month long vacation close to "home," visiting with family and friends and attending a couple local festivals.
Angela and Manuela took me to visit one of Graz's oldest residents Wednesday afternoon. Frau Kurej was born in nearby Slovenia but has lived most of her 99 years in Graz. She outlived her family and contemporary friends but still lives alone (with some assistance from Angela). Manuela said Frau Kurej never married but still enjoys flirting with men and that she was eager to meet Manuela's California husband.
Manuela and I visited Akern, a local food and music festival in Graz with her parents. Sunflowers are a central theme and the festival was surrounded by fields of them. The band played American pop music from the 70's but in German the night we attended and there was lots of beer and food. Unfortunately it began raining soon after we arrived and we cut short our visit.
Schloss St. Martin, Graz
Castles are common place in Austria; there are three or four just in the hills around Graz! Some of them have been restored and can be visited; some lay abandoned and in ruins. Many castles, like Schloss St. Martin above Angela and Willi's home, are used for schools and government institutions. It’s not as big as the 1400 room Schloss Schönbrunn in Vienna and doesn't have the beautiful flower gardens of Schloss Mirabel in Salzburg, but Schloss St. Martin has a stereotypical appearance. The square castle surrounds a cobblestone courtyard that is reached through a portico guarded by two huge wooden doors and has round towers at all four corners. A church dedicated to St. Martin stands just outside the castle walls.
Schloss St. Martin now houses a school so I was able to view the exterior when Manuela, Doris, and I hiked up to it on Thursday. After taking pictures, we continued our hike along a trail that ran up to the ridge of hills on the skirting of Graz. After about a mile we came to another shuttered chapel overlooking the city. Unfortunately it began to rain, so the view was obscured by clouds. We dried off in a Gasthaus nearby and had a cup of coffee/hot chocolate. The simple restaurant/cafe was very charming - bare wood floor, dark wood paneling hung with photographs depicting hunting and fishing scenes, and a friendly dog that patiently waited beside our table for a scrap of food.
Graz's annual puppet and street art festival, La Strada, began Friday night. Manuela and I met her friends, Doris and Petra, in the city center and we attended the opening concert: 90 minutes of non-stop electronica music by a French group. We hopped a few bars afterward. Austria is progressive in many ways, but unfortunately smoking is still allowed in public places. By midnight my eyes were burning.
Arnold Schwarzenegger Geburtshaus Museum, Thal
The Arnold Schwarzenegger Geburtshaus Museum officially opened on Saturday with much national attention. Manuela thought it was a bit silly, so I went alone with Angela and Willi. There were a lot of people on hand for the ceremony and Arnold addressed the crowd via satellite. We got our picture taken with the bugermeister (mayor), an acquaintance of Angela and close friend of the Governator. There are a lot of kitschy Hollywood props in museum, located inside his childhood home, but there is also some interesting artifacts like original furnishings and his first weight lifting equipment.
Our long journey home began Sunday afternoon. We said goodbye to family at the Graz train station and we took a two and one-half hour train ride back to Vienna. Our flight was early Monday, so we stayed the night in at an airport hotel. At 9:30 AM we flew two hours to Dusseldorf, Germany, and then seven hours to Toronto. We passed through U.S. immigration and customs at the Canadian airport and then had a five and one half hour layover. A five hour flight from Toronto landed us in San Francisco at 10:45 PM. Scott drove us home, completing our trains, planes, and automobiles journey.
Coming home after a month abroad was strange. The garden was overgrown, the house was stuffy, and the refrigerator was empty. But the familiarity was comforting and our own bed felt great! We had a wonderful long vacation. I had the pleasure of playing tour guide to my family in Austria, Manuela and I had a second honeymoon in Greece, and we began preparations of our eventual move to Graz. We hope to return to Austria next year, but until then...
Where to next?
July 26, 2011
Tuesday 26 July 2011
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The regular installment of Scott and Manuela's trip to Austria has been interrupted to bring you this special blog about their excursion to Greece. Austria 2011 will resume soon.
Greetings from Paleokastritsa, Greece!
Manuela and I are waiting for our transfer back to Korfu International Airport this morning. We've spent the last seven days sunning and relaxing in the Mediterranean sun. Our resort and beaches on the western coast of this popular vacation island weren't outstanding, but the weather has been perfect - sunny and warm.
It was very hot when we arrived last Tuesday (100 F) and we had to sit in a sweaty airport several hours while TUI Vacations arranged our transfer to the resort. A nationwide taxi strike prevented them from putting us in a taxi when our bus was delayed. Although the wait was only two hours out of our seven day stay, Manuela and I were anxious to start our "honeymoon." We eventually got to the hotel late in the afternoon.
Akrotiri Beach Resort, Paleokastritsa
The Akrotiri Beach Resort is located near the town of Paleokastritsa and beside Agiatriada Beach. My first (and lasting) impression of the semi-inclusive resort was that it is old and outdated. The furnishings and fixtures look like they belong on a That 80's Show set. Our room was furnished with a 20 year old television and a rusty refrigerator, but it was spacious and had a large balcony overlooking the beach. The bathroom window opened to a shared air shaft; when we left it open we could hear our neighbor’s bathroom habits.
We were hot and anxious to check out the water, so we quickly unpacked and headed to the water. It was early evening by the time we got to the beach and it wasn't too crowded despite being small. There are two water sport vendors on the beach; a significant portion of the water line is dominated by paddle boats and launching platforms and motor boat fumes often filled the air.
Akrotiri Beach Resort, Paleokastritsa
The water at Agiatriada Beach is very clear, but Manuela and I were hoping for warmer water. The temperature is more like San Diego than Acapulco. Manuela swam often during the week, but I prefer warmer water; I got in the water a few times over the week, but was never in long enough to use the mask and snorkel I brought from California. We saw only a few non-descript fish.
Our stay at Akrotiri included "half board;" breakfast and dinner were included, but lunch and any other food was extra. Manuela and I wandered into the dining room for dinner the first night not knowing what to expect; no one explained how the dining worked, so we had to guess when it came to ordering from the Greek menu. It wasn't until the end of the meal that we learned the drinks (beer, soda, and bottled water) were not included.
Akrotiri Beach Resort, Paleokastritsa
Manuela and I did nothing on Wednesday, our first full day in Greece. We read by the pool all morning and then on the beach all afternoon. Before switching sunning spots, Manuela and I walked up the road a bit from our hotel to buy water shoes. The beach and water are much too rocky for bare feet.
Hoping for a sandier beach, Manuela and I took a local's advice and walked 30 minutes down the road to a hidden beach on Thursday. It wasn't easy to find ("walk 30 minutes and turn left down the alley next to a pink taverna") and when we found it we discovered it was below the high tide. We had to settle for the popular public beach nearby. It was bigger than the hotel beach, but just as rocky and by noon very crowded. We were exposed to Greek inhibition – several women were sunbathing topless.
In the afternoon we took an excursion to the city of Korfu. After a 60 minute guided tour of the old town, we had a group dinner at a taverna and then a sunset cruise along the city's eastern coast. Korfu is a beautiful old world town. The central streets and alleys are narrow and still paved with stones set by Venetian settlers hundreds of years ago. It is a UNESCO world heritage site, so any changes to the outside of the old buildings must duplicate their original designs. That is prohibitively expensive, so the result is crumbling exteriors with modern interiors. Unfortunately graffiti mars much of Korfu.
A shuttle bus took all the sunset passengers back to the hotel transfer point, but we had to search through the 40 tour buses to find the right one. It was very chaotic. Bus drivers on Korfu are either very confident in their driving skills or very foolish. They race over narrow country roads and around blind curves, often missing passing buses with minimal clearance. At one stop our driver and several locals had to pick a parked car up and shove it aside to get by.
Because our hotel was last on the drop-off list, we didn't get back to the Akrotiri until nearly midnight. We were also picked up first, so we spent four hours on the bus for a three hour tour. Manuela and I agreed it would have been better to take the local bus to Korfu and explore on our own.
On Friday Manuela and I again split our busy day between the beach and the pool. She finished her third or fourth book since arriving in Greece, while I finished my second. Because we arrived at the beach early that day we had to rent our chairs and umbrella. The keeper of the sun beds patrolled the beach everyday with a prison warden scowl and an old adding machine, and demanded payment from would-be sun bed settlers. A Greek law requires that receipts be issued for goods and services, so she cranked out a receipt for our 8 euros ($12).
Akrotiri Beach Resort, Paleokastritsa
We looked forward to the Friday Night Pool Party Disco by DJ Konstantino, but were disappointed to learn that the host was the same 16 year old bar tender that spends all day behind the poolside bar and the music was all 20-something pop. If we were younger and more interested in drinking, we could have found several bars near the hotel at which to party.
Manuela and I still had several books to read, so we spent Saturday morning sunning by the pool. To save ourselves 8 euros, we opted for a spot on the "sand" in the afternoon. It wasn't until after we had settled ourselves that we noticed the 58 year old woman with artificially inflated lips and breasts next to us plucking pubic hair along her bikini line.
Agiatriada Beach, Paleokastritsa
After our third dinner in the Akrotiri dining hall, Manuela and I learned to fill up on the first two courses; the main dish was overcooked every time. The meat was dry and the vegetables mushy. The buffet breakfasts were little better, but the dry breads, greasy bacon, and warm yogurt left me uninspired. The coffee was passable, though I suspect it as an instant variety. On Saturday we walked up the road to a crowded taverna and had a good meal. I had a Greek pizza - olives and feta cheese.
We took a second excursion on Sunday and enjoyed it much more than the first. A large tour boat took us to Parga on the mainland and then to Gaios on the small island of Paxos. Both towns are centuries old and known for quaint alleys and old buildings. Manuela and I both particularly enjoyed Parga and its old homes and narrow streets. No cars are allowed in the city center, so walking around was easy. There are two long beaches in Parga and it seems like a great vacation destination. We hiked up to a fascinating fortress sitting above the harbor entrance; it lay mostly in ruins, including rusting canons scattered about. Paxos was very similar, though smaller and caters more to the rich yachting set.
We got a message Monday morning from Angela that it was cold and raining in Graz, so we took advantage our last day in the Mediterranean sunshine and spent it on the beach. We checked out of our hotel early this afternoon. We left several books behind in the lending library but are taking away tans and lots of photos. We'll back in Graz this afternoon (no jet lag!). We have no specific plans for our last week in Graz, but Manuela wants to take me to a music and food festival and a puppet/street performance festival.
July 19, 2011
Tuesday 19 July 2011
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Greetings from Graz!
Manuela and I mark our first wedding anniversary today and what better way to celebrate than to fly off to a Mediterranean island for seven days? We're at the Graz Airport now waiting for our 90 minute flight to Korfu, Greece. One advantage to living in central Europe is that many exciting destinations are so close. No jet lag!
St. Anna, Gösting
The past few days in Graz have been relatively quiet. Manuela's family threw us a wonderful wedding party at St. Anna’s Catholic Church in nearby Gösting where Angela works. Over 50 family and friends celebrated with us and the party lasted eight hours. Coffee and cake were served in the afternoon, followed by a catered dinner in the evening. At our wedding party in the California last summer, we had dinner first and then dessert!
July 14, 2011
Thursday 14 July 2011
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Greetings from Vienna!
Manuela and I are waiting at the Meidling Wien Bahnhof for a train back to Graz this morning. My mother, Maureen, and Scott are aboard a flight back to California. Manuela and I had fun showing them Austria the past ten days, but now we’re heading home to prepare for a party to celebrate our marriage with her family and friends. We still have two and a half weeks over here, including a week in Greece.
We spent Tuesday afternoon touring Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp with Manuela's parents and her niece Theresa. The camp, a few miles from the town of Mauthausen (about 30 miles from Linz), is well preserved. A two hour audio guide portrays the life of the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners, prisoners of war, and Jews. Over one hundred thousand of them were murdered in the gas chamber or worked to death in a nearby quarry.
Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp, Mauthausen
After visiting Mauthausen-Gusen, Willi and Angela drove us back to the Linz Bahnhof where my family said goodbye to them and Theresa. The five of us continued onto Vienna and arrived back at Hotel Pension Mariahilf in the evening. Maureen, Scott, Manuela, and I rode the subway to Donapark, a city park on the banks of the Danube River. We were treated to a beautiful twilight view of Vienna from atop Donaturm, a 252 meter tall tower in the park. Afterwards we went to Sweddenplatz and ate a late dinner at the food stalls.
We all went to Stephansdom Wednesday morning and debated whether to climb the cathedral's 136 meter tall tower or ride an elevator up the 68 meter tall bell tower; we chose the latter because it provided the best view of the colorful tile roof. Afterwards we shopped at Manuela's favorite candy store, Manner.
There are many historical sights in Vienna's center within walking distance of each other. We strolled down Graben, where there are many upscale stores, and peeked into Demel, a very old pastry shop. We pass through Michaelerplatz, where 2nd century Roman ruins were unearthed in the 1990's. The Spanish Riding Academy, home to the famous Lipizzaner Stallions, overlooks the plaza. Neue Burg, beside it, houses Nationalbibliothek (National Library).
We had a late morning snack at a cafe at the Prunksaal; the adjoining butterfly museum was disappointing. It was another hot and muggy day by noon, so we decided to ride the strassenbahn that circles the inner city; from our seats we could see the Austrian Parliment, Vienna Rathaus, and many of the other historic buildings.
For anyone interested in unique art and/or quirky architecture, visiting the Hunderwasserhaus and Kunsthaus Wien are must-sees. The former is an apartment building designed by Austrian artist Hundertwasser; the latter is a gallery housing a permanent exhibit of his art and architecture. It’s difficult to describe the apartment building, but the artist must have been heavily influenced by Dr. Suess. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
one did a bit of shopping before our last dinner together in Austria. My mother had been looking for a beef stroganoff dinner since we landed on Austria and she finally got it at Hoof Brau. Manuela and I spent the evening watching the Graz Sturm soccer team on television and Scott went to an English language cinema on Mariahilferstrasse to see the latest Harry Potter movie - three days before it's release in the States!
Wiener Mitte Bahnhof, Vienna
The 10:30 AM flight home this morning left no time for sightseeing. Manuela and I rode the S-Bahn train to the airport with my mother, Maureen, and Scott, and we saw them off. They enjoyed their 10 day journey through Austria, but they are looking forward to going home; my mother wants to rest, Maureen wants to try all the new gardening ideas she picked up from Willi and Angela, and Scott wants to hear English again.
July 12, 2011
Tuesday 12 July 2011
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Greetings from the OBB!
We are on the Austrian National Railway (OBB) this morning. Manuela and her parents will meet us at the train station in Linz today and together we will visit the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp near Mauthausen. My mother, Maureen, Scott, and I have spent the last two days visiting Salzburg.
For Americans, Salzburg is best known for The Sound of Music. Austrians have little interest in the Julie Andrews movie; for them Salzburg is the birth place of Amadeaus Wolfgang Mozart. Regardless of one's point of view, Salzburg is a beautiful city with a history that dates back to the 5th century when it was an important source of salt and located on a central trade route.
We arrived Sunday afternoon after a four hour train ride from Graz, settled in our hotel, just a five minute walk from most of the interesting sights in Alt Stadt, and took a brief walking tour. We had dinner at an outdoor cafe in the Alt Markt plaza. It was quite warm and humid until a thunder shower cooled the evening.
Monday morning was much cooler. We began with a tour of Hohensalzburg, the fortress that sits atop a hill beside the old city. The views from the fortress are amazing, though perhaps the most interesting sight was inside the fortress - a real dungeon and torture chamber used to for "intense interrogations." We spent about an hour wandering around the grounds before taking the 30 minute audio guide of the interior. Because of the many stairs, my mother was limited to riding the funicular to the fortress base.
We walked through the cemetery beside Stiftskirche St. Peter in the shadows of Hohensalzburg. There are many beautifully ornate grave markers; unfortunately, the adjoining catacombs were closed. Stiftskirche St. Peter is just one of three big churches within a two minute walk of each other. Beside it is the Dom, the largest and oldest church in Salzburg.
After visiting the churches, we strolled through plazas and narrow streets and toured Mozart Geburtshaus, birth place of the composer. We also visited Mozart Wohnhaus where Mozart spent the latter part of his childhood. It is across the river from Alte Stadt, but only a five minute walk away. Of the two Mozart museums, I found the geburtshaus more interesting; displays in both consist mostly of documents and information.
Schloss Mirabell, a large palace built by an Archbishop for his mistress and their 10 children, is next to Mozart Wohnhaus. Tours of the interior are not offered, but the beautiful gardens are worth the visit. After visiting Schloss Mirabell, we all went our separate ways for some individual shopping. I spent an hour relaxing with a cup of coffee at a cafe on Mozartplatz. In the evening Scott and I watched Canada handily beat Austria in an American Football game on TV.
Taking a taxi can be risky as a tourist in any city in the world, but when I saw that the driver for our ride from the hotel to the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof Tuesday morning was a woman, for some reason I felt much more confident we would not be taken advantage of. And she had the nicest taxi I had ever ridden in - a new Audi with leather seats. Both taxi rides, to and from the hotel, were only 10 euros.
After visiting Mauthausen-Gusen today, Manuela will join us for as we return to Vienna. We'll spend one last day with my family visiting Austria's capital before they fly home Thursday morning.
Sunday 10 July 2011
Sunday, July 10, 2011
Greetings from Graz!
Austria is divided into nine bundeslander, which are similar to American states in government but counties in size. According to many sources, Austrians identify themselves more by their regions, or bundesland, than by their country. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he is Styrian first and Austrian second.
We spent the last three days touring Graz and the Styrian region. Manuela gave us a tour of Graz's city center on Thursday, beginning with an overview from atop Schlossberg. This fortress sits atop a hill near the city center and was once besieged by Napoleon and his forces. The view of Graz's red tile roofed old quarter is beautiful.
Down in the city center, we visited the Hauptplatz (main plaza); Rathaus (Graz government center); Landhaus (Styrian government center); and viewed the ornately painted Bemaltes Haus, all along Graz's Herrengasse (main street).
After an ice cream break, we visited the Hof Backerei, a 600 year old bakery, and the Dom, a 15th century Gothic cathedral. We watched the Glockenspiel clock as it struck 3:00 PM, then crossed the Mur River that bisects Graz to see the Kunsthaus, an art museum that resembles a giant blue sea slug.
Schwarzenegger’s Geburtshaus, Thal
Willi drove us to the neighboring town of Thal, where Manuela and Schwarzenegger grew up. We visited a kitschy Kirche (church); Volksschule Thal (Manuela and the Govenator's elementary school); and posed for pictures in front of Schwarzenegger's Geburtshaus (childhood home). We also drove by the agriculture school where Willi works. In the evening, my mother treated us all to dinner at Volksgoart'n, a typical Styrian restaurant.
Kaiser Joseph Platz, Graz
Manuela took us to the market at Kaiser Joseph Platz Friday morning where local farmers sell their produce six days a week. We bought a few items and watched the locals, mostly women, do their daily shopping. Maureen noticed how little packaging the market used; even live plants are sold without plastic containers.
Maureen has become an avid hiker, so she was anxious to hike while in Austria. On Friday we walked a couple miles to the summit of Schockl. It is 1463 meters high, but we climbed only the last 700 meters; Willi and my mother rode the gondola jp. At the top we ate lunch and rode Hexenexpress, a self controlled toboggan rail ride.
In the afternoon we drove out to Weinstrasse, the Styrian wine country, and tasted wine at Tinnauer Buschenschank, a small winery owned by a relative of Angela. We also sampled a typical platter of cold meats and cheeses. We spent several relaxing hours with a beautiful view of rolling vineyard hills and Slovenia in the distance.
We were treated to a family celebration on Saturday. Manuela's family gathered to celebrate her grandmother's birthday at a restaurant near her home village of Manning. Family came from as far away as Germany, England, and California to celebrate Oma Pechtigam's 80th birthday. Even the Manning burgermeister (mayor) was on hand for a toast.
After the party, Scott, Maureen, Birgit's husband Michi, Manuela, and I went to a Graz Sturm soccer game. The friendly match was played at a small regional stadium because an American Football European Championship Tournament game between Japan and Australia was previously scheduled at the Graz's city arena. It was a very small stadium and we had to standup throughout the 3-3 draw. After the match, Michi took us to their home in the country outside Graz and we joined my mother, Angela, and Willi for an evening visit with Birgit's family.
My mother, Maureen, Scott, and I are off to Salzburg this morning via train. Manuela will stay behind and visit with friends while the four of us visit the historic town best known as the birthplace of Mozart and filming of The Sound of Music. We'll be there for two nights and then meet up with Manuela, Angela, and Willi in Linz.
July 6, 2011
Wednesday 6 July 2011
Thursday, July 6, 2011
Greetings from Austria!
Today we arrived in Graz, home to Manuela's family. Her parents, Angela and Willi, have opened their home to us for the next four days. While we're here, we'll visit with family and see the sights of the Styrian region.
We arrived in Vienna late Tuesday night. After getting settled in our hotel near the city center Maureen, Scott, Manuela, and I took the subway to Stephansplatz to see Vienna's iconic church, Stephansdom. We then spent an hour strolling along Herrengasse, an upscale shopping avenue in the city center
Hotel Pension Mariahilf, Vienna
We didn't get to bed until late our first night, but because of the time difference, Manuela and I were wide awake at 4:00 AM Wednesday morning. Our hotel, Hotel Pension Mariahilf, served a typical pension breakfast – rolls, jams, ham, and cheese. Pensions are usually small family run hotels and often include breakfast.
We took a strassenbahn (street car) from the pension to Schloss Schönbrunn, a 1441 room palace built in 1700. Fortunately, Maureen bought tour tickets on-line earlier that morning with reserved times, so they avoided the long ticket line. Manuela and I toured the palace when I visited in 2009, so we relaxed in the garden while Mom, Maureen, and Scott took the one hour audio tour. I'm not a classical music fan, but I was impressed by the Spiegelsaal (mirror room) where Mozart first performed publicly when he was just six years old!
Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna
We had lunch at a cafe on Mariahilferstrasse near the pension and Mom discovered that Austrian milkshakes are made with milk, not ice cream. Manuela's friend Martina, who lives and works in Vienna, joined us for a brief visit. Afterwards, we collected our luggage from the pension and got on an afternoon train to Graz. We met a pretentious New Yorker married to an Austrian woman on the train. He liked telling us about his jet-set lifestyle and commuting back and forth between countries.
Our trip to southern Austria took two and one-half hours. Manuela's parents met us at the Graz Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in a small bus they rented to show us around Styria.
Meidling Bahnhof, Vienna
Angela and Willi have a beautiful garden. There are colorful flowers everywhere and an extensive vegetable patch; Scott picked fresh raspberries. After a tour of the family home, we got settled in. Manuela's sister Xandl stopped by with her husband Oli and their daughter Theresa. Manuela's other sister, Birgit, also came for a brief visit.
We’ll be in Graz until Sunday. Tomorrow we will visit the city center and Schlossberg, a historic fortress overlooking the city. Later in the week we’ll visit Austria’s wine country and climb a (little) Alp.
Sunday 3 July 2011
Elk Grove, California
July 4, 2011
Where to next? Back to Europe!
Manuela and I get to spend the next four weeks in Austria and Greece! We will visit family and friends in Graz, tour Salzburg and Vienna, and lounge on a Mediterranean beach. Besides the length of our trip, this journey will be special because my mother, my sister Maureen and son Scott will join us for the first 12 days.
The five of us depart on July 4 and will spend the first day in Vienna. After visiting the capital, we will be in Graz for four days. It will be an opportunity to show my family the beautiful city in which Manuela and I will be living in a few years. Besides seeing the sights of Styria, my family will meet Manuela's family at her grandmother's 80th birthday party.
After Graz, we will travel by train to Salzburg, home of Mozart and The Sound of Music. From there our journey will continue to Linz to visit the Mauthausen-Gusen Concentration Camp. Then we will return to Vienna for one more day before my family returns to California. Manuela and I will spend a few more days in Graz before jetting off to Korfu, a Greek island, for a week of sun and fun.
It's been over a year since Manuela has been home and one and a half years since I first visited Austria. We are excited about spending time with family and friends, exploring our eventual move, and just being away from work for a month!
April 29 - May 3, 2011
Tuesday 3 May 2011
May 3, 2011
New York City
I first visited New York City in 1968 as a five year-old boy, during a four-week family tour of the United States. I also visited in 2006 with Scotti. Manuela has never been, so when it came time to redeem our round-trip airline tickets, the Big Apple was the obvious choice.
We left Sacramento Friday night but first flew west to San Francisco rather than east. United Airlines doesn't fly direct from Sacramento to New York, but since the tickets were free, we decided to fly to San Francisco rather than drive. We were able to nap only a bit during the 4 1/2 hour flight and arrived at 6:30 AM at John F. Kennedy Airport very tired. An hour-long subway ride later and we found ourselves in the middle of Manhattan. Our hotel, the Best Western near the convention center, was a just a few blocks from the subway station.
Manuela has become a big fan of donutes since moving to the States, so after dropping our luggage off at the hotel we found the nearest Dunkin' Donuts. I like donuts in the morning, but she thinks they are a great any time of day and doesn't understand why donut shops close in the afternoons. After "breakfast," we walked to Time Square just in time for the start of a 10K race benefiting breast cancer. Air cannons filled the air with red, pink, and white confetti as the crowd ran off down Broadway.
Grayline Bus Tour
Because we were tired, we decided to take a hop-on/hop-off bus tour to start our visit to Manhattan. We purchased a 48-hour pass for the Grayline bus tour and rode the downtown loop past the Empire State Building, through Greenwich Village, and past Wall Street. We hopped off at St. Paul's Chapel, which stands beside Ground Zero. There is a cemetery at the rear of the chapel with tombstones so worn that the name are illegible.
It was here that volunteers ate and slept between rescue shifts at the World Trade center. Inside the chapel there are several displays paying tribute to the rescue workers of September 11. One display shows the countless police and fire department patches brought from around the world. We found one from my police department, though I don't know if it is the patch I left when Scotti and I visited Ground Zero, or one left by a fellow officer. A new tower is under construction, but not much can be seen from the street. There is model memorial on display across the street from the Chapel, along with stirring photographs from 9/11 and the aftermath.
St. Paul's Chapel
After visiting St. Paul's Chapel and Ground Zero, Manuela and I hopped back on a Grayline bus and rode to the South Street Seaport near the Lower Eastside. We visited some shops and watched the crowds rallying for Parkinson's Disease. After wandering for a bit, we rode the bus to Rockefeller Center where we took in the crowds and ate a pretzel from a street vendor. From there, Central Park was a short walk away.
By the time we reached the famous city park, Manuela had been awake for nearly 24 hours and had run out of energy. Much to her dismay, I had no difficulty taking a 20 minute nap on a wood bench while a violinist played classical music nearby. Like my father, I can nap anywhere, anytime. After our rest, we walked through Strawberry Fields. Numerous twenty-first century hippies were gathered near the memorial, some trying very hard to look and sound like John Lennon.
In the evening of our first day in Manhattan, we strolled through the crowds and tourist shops of Time Square, including the Hershey's M&M store. By the time we got back to our hotel, we were each very tired. Despite our intention to sleep late Sunday morning Manuela and I were woken at 5:00 AM by the Long Island RR train blowing its horn as it passed beneath our tenth floor room. That was soon followed by honking horns and a jackhammer. Welcome to the big city!
After breakfast at the hotel, we walked across town to the Empire State Building. We had to wait several minutes to cross Broadway because of the Five Burroughs Bicycle Tour passing by. The line to purchase tickets wasn't too long, but we stood in an hour-long line for the elevator. The observation deck was crowded and we had to wait a few moments on each side for a spot at the railing. The view from the 86th floor is amazing - downtown to the south, Central Park to the north, the Hudson River & New Jersey to the west, and the East River and Queens to the east.
View From Empire State Building
The world's largest department store, Macy's, is just a few blocks from the Empire State Building, so Manuela and I stopped in. As soon as we saw the prices of their merchandise, however, we quickly went across the street to H & M, an equally fashionable clothing store with prices that fit our budget.
Although some frequent travelers may thumb their noses at guided group tours, they are often very informative as well as entertaining. Many walking tours I've been on were led by knowledgeable guides. Manuela and I took The Big Onion Walking Tours' Multi-Ethnic Eating Tour Sunday afternoon (www.bigonion.com). Sarah, an art history graduate student at NYU, guided 15 of us through the ethnic history and neighborhoods of the Lower Eastside, which has seen numerous waves of ethnic specific immigration. Along the way, she fed us fried plantains (Caribbean), kosher pickles (Jewish), tofu (Chinese), and mozzarella (Italian). Many of The Big Onion Tours are free, but we paid $20 to for the cost of the food.
After the tour, we returned to Mulberry Street in Little Italy had excellent pizza at Il Picolo Bufalo. Manuela has a talent for languages, so when a young couple sat down at the table beside us and began speaking German, she immediately deduced they were from Vienna. We learned they were in New York for ten days. That's not the first time we've crossed paths with Austrians on vacation. In March we shared a ski lift with three Austrians visiting/working in California and just last week I rescued a university student from Salzburg stranded in Stockton. There may be only 8 million Austrians, but they get around.
Manuela and I returned to our hotel by 9:00 Sunday night, oblivious to the events that transpired half a world away in Pakistan and the resulting celebrations just a few blocks away in Time Square. We didn't learn about Osama bin Laden's death until Monday morning.
Statue of Liberty
With only a few minutes to spare on our 48 hour bus tour pass, we hopped on the Grayline bus near Time Square Monday morning and rode the Uptown Loop. It was a bit cool and windy, but Manuela and I sat in the deck and took in the sights. We passed numerous Upper Westside luxury apartment buildings (the Dakota), Central Park, through Harlem (the Apollo Theater), and then down the Upper Eastside along Museum Mile (Guggenheim Museum). Our guide, an older woman raised in Harlem, was very informative.
In the afternoon we rode the subway to Battery Park and toured Liberty Island (Statue of Liberty) and Ellis Island. The wait for the ferry was about one hour, mostly due to the airport level security screening. Separate tickets can be purchased daily to enter the statue's pedestal, but those sell out early in the morning. Limited tickets are now available in advance to climb to the statue's crown, but they must be purchased weeks in advance. Everyone was allowed to climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of Lady Liberty back in 1968. I was five years old, but still remember peering out the windows set in her crown.
After walking around the Statue of Liberty and listening to the audio guide, Manuela and I took the ferry to Ellis Island. It was my first visit to the historic immigration port. Besides learning a great deal about the trials and tribulations of early 20th century immigrants, Manuela and I found numerous artifacts from Austrian immigrants. We agreed that her immigration process paled in comparison to the ordeals those newcomers to America endured.
Manu and I spent Monday evening in and around Time Square. We bought "I heart NY" t-shirts in the same souvenir shop Scott and I shopped and saw Water For Elephants at the same 42nd Street movie theatre he and I saw Superman. There were no more crowds celebrating the killing of bin Laden, but there were a lot of police officers around.
With little time Tuesday (May 3) before our early afternoon flight, Manuela and I took a short walk along the Hudson River where the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid is permanently moored as a museum. We checked out of our hotel by noon and rode the subway back to JFK airport. Although the flight east took only four and one-half hours, the trip back to San Francisco took six and one-half hours. Our flight was delayed 30 minutes because the pilot's first officer overslept! The flight from San Francisco to Sacramento was only 20 minutes long.
New York City is a great city. There is so much to do and see (we ran into four different fund raiser/rallies in three days), that we couldn't possibly see it all in one weekend. We didn't even get off Manhattan Island. We will definitely be returning.
Where to next?
Monday 18 October 2010
October 18, 2010
The highways and byways linking Oakhurst to Capitola represent a standard slice of California. We began high in the Sierra Nevada forests, sloped down oak studded foothills, crossed through flat fields of the Central Valley, over the Diablo Mountain range, across the green Salinas Valley, over the Santa Cruz Mountains and finally down to the Pacific Ocean. Besides the widely varying landscapes, we passed through temperature gradients of over 40 degrees – 95° F/ 35° C in San Joaquin Valley to 55° F/ 13° C seaside. We added a couple more out-of-state license plates along the way.
We arrived in Capitola at dusk and took a short stroll around the beachside city center and had dinner at a Thai restaurant. After our "just one more tree" morning excursion and long drive, we retired early to Harbor Lights Hotel, which is just a block from the beach. Our large hotel room (including full kitchen) has a small balcony with an ocean view. The furnishing were a bit worn and dated, but the hotel was clean, conveniently located, and reasonably priced.
Manuela and I briefly passed through Capitola during her maiden voyage to California in 2009, but she remembered little of that visit. My memories of this seaside town go back 40 years. As kids, my brother and I tagged along with the neighborhood Cortez boys when their father tended a rental home they owned there. We spent afternoons exploring the cliffs and beaches while Mr. Cortez took care of the house. We walked from the house down a long street that ended at the sea cliff and then down along the cliffs to secluded beaches. Occasionally we walked all the way to Esplanade and played Skee Ball in the Fun House Arcade. If we spent the night, Mr. Cortez would drop us off the Capitola Theater on Monterey Street. We saw a Soilent Green (Charlton Heston)/Silent Running (Bruce Dern) double feature there one night.
Manuela patiently let me reminisce during a stroll Saturday morning (November 16) under gray skies. We wandered through some of the beach bungalow neighborhoods and were drawn to the east cliff neighborhood by a series "World's Largest Garage Sale" signs, but all we found was a woman selling boxes of broken pottery. If Manuela's travel passion is cemeteries, then mine is thrift stores and secondhand book stores. After our walk morning walk we drove to the Santa Cruz flea market. We bought some old records, including Bill Cosby's "I Started Out As a Child." That opened another can of childhood memories.
Manuela is a diehard weather optimist and while driving back to Capitola she saw two spots of the blue sky. But they blew far offshore by the time we got to the beach with our blankets and books. After about 15 minutes of shivering on the sand we gave up on seeing the sun and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and reading in the hotel.
Saturday evening drizzle turned into Sunday morning (November 17) rain. With no beach time in the forecast, we took a tour of local thrift stores but they were all closed. Instead, we decided to rediscover my Capitola roots. The Fun House Arcade has been replaced by Zelda's Sports Bar and the Capitola Theater was torn down last spring, but the Cortez house, long since sold, is still standing. Relying on 40 year old memories I eventually found it on Yucca Street. I was initially confused because that long road we walked down to get to the sea cliff (34th Avenue) has been shortened considerably since 1970.
The two blue spots Manuela spotted on Saturday came back this morning (November 18) and got together long enough to let the sun shine through. Unfortunately it’s our last morning in Capitola. After a leisurely breakfast at Mr. Toot's Café, we’ll pack up and head home.
While planning this trip, Manuela and I debated whether to visit Yosemite or Capitola first. We decided on the former because we knew our visit to the National Park would be active and our stay at the ocean more relaxing. It was the right choice. We did a lot of hiking and walking in Yosemite and saw many wonderful sights, but we were tired every night. We saw some interesting sights in Capitola, too, but our time was spent more relaxing - in our ocean view room, in restaurants, and in cafes. Our next holiday away will be another California road trip when Manuela's parents visit in January. They've requested a visit to one of America's National Parks, so we may make a winter visit to Yosemite. An ocean side stay will definitely be on the itinerary, too. Until then...
Where to next?
P.S. We spotted our 34th and final out-of-state license plate, Georgia, as we pulled into Elk Grove!
State license plates
Friday 15 October 2010
October 15, 2010
Yosemite National Park, California
I've been so busy discover the new worlds in the past few years that I've forgotten about my own back yard. There are many world famous sights right here in California and one of the joys of marrying an Austrian woman is playing travel guide in my home state. Manuela and I are visiting the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Pacific Ocean this week (October 12-18, 2010). After three days of exploring Yosemite National Park, we will relax for three days in Capitola-by-the-Sea.
We arrived in Oakhurst Tuesday evening (October 12) where the Best Western Hotel is a bit dated but clean and reasonably priced. This town of a few thousand people is only 15 minutes from the south entrance, Yosemite Valley is 35 miles farther north and because of resurfacing on Highway 41, it took about 90 minutes to drive get there from Oakhurst Wednesday morning (October 13).
Yosemite's most popular sights are in the valley and many of them can be seen from the Tunnel View overlook. Although named for the adjacent highway tunnel, the vista point could also get its name from the view up the narrow valley - El Capitan, Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Half Dome line up in a picture perfect column. Manuela and I got our first indication of the Yosemite's national and international appeal there; we saw several cars with out-of-state license plates and heard several different languages.
Lonely Planet's Yosemite guide book says the best way to avoid Yosemite crowds is to get out of the car and onto a hiking trail, so we decided to begin our visit to the valley floor on Lower Yosemite Valley Loop, a moderate six mile hike with minimal elevation gain. We started at Bridal Veil Falls, which was impressive despite the late season. Even with minimal water falling, the 617 foot cascade from the sheer cliff above was impressive.
Bridal Veil Falls
The rest of the crowd returned to the nearby parking lot but we hiked east along the south bank of the Merced River. Half way up the valley we crossed over to the north side and looped back west. We passed beneath El Capitan, one of the world's largest granite monoliths, where several groups of climbers attempting El Capitan's face; they were little more than brightly colored specks. At the lower end of the Valley, we re-crossed the Merced River and hiked back to Bridal Veil Falls. A trail side monument near the south bank marks where naturalist John Muir convinced President Teddy Roosevelt over a campfire to preserve Yosemite as a national treasure. It doesn’t say if shared s'mores
By the time we returned to Bridal Veil Falls, our six mile introductory hike turned into a three hour nine mile trek; we were very tired when we drove to Yosemite Village. While looking for a parking space in the main lot, Manuela noticed many more out-of-state license plates, so we started a list. We tallied nearly 20 different states and a van from Germany before leaving that parking lot! It was late afternoon when we got to the village and most of the facilities were closing, so we strolled around for a bit before driving back to Oakhurst. We stopped off at the Tunnel View again for evening pictures.
Manuela and I debated whether to ride the free shuttle from the Yosemite's south entrance back to Yosemite Valley on Thursday (October 14) to avoid construction delays, but decided to drive ourselves because we wanted to go to Glacier Point at sunset. We began our second day with a short hike to Yosemite Falls. At 2425 feet it is one of the world tallest. While most people remained at the viewing platform below, Manuela and I scampered over, around, and under giant boulders until we were standing under the falling water. There is a pool of very clear and very cold water at the base and I couldn't resist the temptation to take a swim. My father would have said it was refreshing!
Anyone who has been following my travels the past two years knows about Manuela's fondness for graveyards. She says tombstones and epitaphs reveal a lot about a local culture. We learned a lot about Yosemite Village's early days by visiting the pioneer cemetery. It is the final resting place of Galen “Guardian of Yosemite” Clark. There are several rough cut granite markers including the large Hutchings family stone that has names carved on all four sides. One grave is marked simply "Boy."
After visiting the museum and the Ansel Adams Gallery, Manuela and I drove up to Glacier Point, which sits atop a sheer cliff 3000 feet/914 meters above Yosemite Valley; the eastern view of Half Dome (8836 ft/2693 M), Cloud's Rest (9926 ft/3025 M), and Cathedral Peak (10940 ft/3334 M) is spectacular. Manuela wanted to see the sun set over California, but we settled for the slow drama of Half Dome fading through shades of orange, rose, and pink.
Half Dome at sunset
Although we will be driving west across California today, Manuela and I decided to drive back to Yosemite this morning (October 15) and visit the grove of Giant Sequoias near the south entrance. Several trails wind through the Mariposa Grove and pass a dozen notable trees; visiting every tree would entail a four mile hike. We had enough hiking, though, and decided to visit just a couple trees. But I think the National Park System strategically planted the trees "just another half mile" apart from each other.
After reaching the Bachelor and Three Graces, Manuela and I decided to continue on to the Grizzly Giant which was "just another half mile" further. The California Tunnel Tree was "just another half mile" beyond that. Before we knew it, two and a half hours passed and we hiked to nearly every tree. Before leaving the Mariposa Grove, we circled the parking lot once in search of more out-of-state plates. We spotted two new ones which brought our total to 31 different states, all within Yosemite National Park.
See you in Capitola!
Mariposa Grove 219
June 25-27, 2010
Friday 23 July 2010
Where to next? The Tahoe Rim Trail.
For many years I've wanted to hike the TRT, which circumnavigates Lake Tahoe along the surrounding mountain ridges. When my brothers, Patrick and Dean, planned to hike the Echo Summit to Big Meadow section I was eager to join them. The three of us, plus Dean's fiancee Adrianna and his son Seth, set out Friday morning (June 25) to hike this 15 mile section over three days. We planned to spend Friday night at Showers Lake, hike to Round Lake on Saturday, and finish at the Big Meadow trailhead on Sunday.
The 165 mile long TRT was established in 1981 and crosses six counties in two states. It’s broken down into nine legs and shares about fifty miles with the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. More information can be found on the TRT Association's website (www.tahoerimtrail.org)
Tahoe Rim Trail
The El Dorado National Forest Ranger who issued our fire permit predicted we would encounter snow at the higher elevations near Shower's Lake. We figured a patch here and there wouldn't be a problem, but we weren’t prepared for large snow drifts. We reached Round Lake Saturday afternoon, but not the way we planned.
Weather prognosticators forecasted isolated thundershowers for the mountains on Friday and clear sunny days on Saturday and Sunday, so I wasn't too surprised when I drove through rain east of Elk Grove Friday morning. I had to stop and move my pack inside the truck. I met the others at the family cabin.
We were stopped by road construction on Highway 88, on our way to leave my truck at Big Meadow trailhead and our packs got wet in the back of Dean's truck while we were delayed for about ten minutes. By the time we dropped off my truck and drove up to Echo Summit, our bags were quite wet; but we kept talking optimistically about an expected change in weather.
Echo Summit Trailhead
The rain was intermittent when we started off and I got more wet from within sweating because of our steady climb for the first couple miles. We began running into bigger and bigger patches of snow across the trail about two miles up the trail. Each time, though, we were able to pick up the trail on the other side.
By the time we reached Bryan Meadow, about three and one-half miles in, I was very wet and cold. We stopped for an extended break near the meadow when we lost the trail under a large patch of snow. Dean and Patrick scouted the area and Dean found "a" trail. We loaded up our packs and continued on for another half mile before realizing we were headed in the wrong way. We were on "a" trail, but not "the" trail we wanted.
We re-crossed the slippery ice fields back to where the trail disappeared and searched in every direction but couldn't find where it led. We had hoped to reach Shower's Lake by mid afternoon, but it was now 3:00 PM and we weren't half way there.
It was too late to continue even if we could find the trail. We decided to hike back out, spend the night at the cabin, and hike in from the Big Meadow side the following morning. Instead of eating freeze dried beef stroganoff for dinner and sleeping on the hard ground, we ate pizza and slept in comfy beds.
Saturday morning’s sky was crystal clear and we were walking across Big Meadow by 9:00 AM. I've hiked through this meadow several times on day hikes and knew it would be beautiful in June. It’s a steep half mile climb up from Highway 88, but well worth the effort. The meadow was lush green and made a postcard perfect picture beneath a brilliant blue sky.
After crossing the half-mile long meadow, we climbed to about 8000 feet over the next two miles, and then descended to the Upper Truckee River. From there it was another mile hike up the river to Round Lake. We reached it Saturday afternoon as originally planned but from the opposite direction.
There are several established, though unimproved, campsites on Round Lake. We chose one along the south shore and got settled before taking a 60 minute hike around the alpine lake. In the evening, Patrick and Dean cooked some Darn Good Chili for dinner and Patrick beat each of us at Cribbage.
We broke camp early Sunday morning (June 27), and were on the trail by 10:00 AM. I was dreading the ascent from the river to the summit at 8000 feet, but that took only about 15 minutes. After that it was all down hill to the meadow and we were back at the trailhead by 12:30 PM.
Big Meadow Trailhead
Unfortunately our first attempt at the Tahoe Rim Trail failed. We thought we might come across some snow at the upper elevations, but we never expected the trail to still be buried in it. We're already making plans to re-attempt this hike when the snow has fully melted.
Until then...where to next?
Tuesday 18 May 2010
May 18, 2010
Elk Grove, California
Perhaps no trip abroad is complete without some misadventure getting home. There was the frantic cross country train ride in Germany to retrieve a lost passport hours before returning home and an immigration detention upon return from Guatemala. Fortunately, our latest mishap turned out to be profitable.
Manuela and I checked into the Formula 1 at Charles De Gualle airport Sunday (May 16), the night before our noon flight home. Formula 1 is a new chain of economy hotels. Our room (for up to three people) was just $45, about 1/3 of our other Paris hotel rooms. It was very clean and new, but also very small. The shared toilets and showers off the hall were clearly designed for low maintenance – the toilet and floor were molded from a single piece of plastic and there was no toilet seat. It was cheap, but functional.
Formula 1 Hotel, Paris
We arrived at Charles De Gualle airport early Monday morning (May 17) only to learn that all flights to London were cancelled due to volcanic activity. We were supposed to fly from London direct to San Francisco and arrive at 5:00 PM. After waiting in a long line, British Airways was able to re-book us on an American Airlines flight to Chicago with a connection to San Francisco arriving about 7:00 PM.
A later arrival would inconvenience our friends, Stephany and Kelly, who graciously planned to pick us up at the BART station in Dublin after work but we had no choice. At the American Airlines desk we learned our first flight was delayed two hours, so we would not be able to make the connection. They found us a later connection on a United Airlines flight arriving in San Francisco at 11:00 PM. Besides putting out our friends even more, I was worried BART would stop running before we reached San Francisco and we might have to spend a night in the city. Stephany kindly offered to pick us up at the airport if necessary.
The eight hour flight to Chicago wasn’t too bad. We lucked out and got two exit row seats with a bulk head in front of us; we had a bit more room than normal and could put our feet up. After landing, Manuela had to endure the standard inquiries at immigration – Why are you in the U.S. again? Are you planning to look for work? What does your boyfriend do?
Unfortunately, her answer to that last question didn’t get the positive response it got me. Her agent was not impressed. Along with the standard inquires (who were you visiting, etc.), my immigration agent also asked about my occupation. When I said “police sergeant,” he handed me my passport and said, “Enough with these B.S. questions. Welcome home, Sarge.”
Passing through customs was much easier. When we re-checked our luggage at the United Airlines counter, the agent told us the flight was very overbooked, but our seats were guaranteed. On the way to the departure gate I commented to Manuela that airlines often offer compensation to passengers willing to give up their seats on overbooked flights, up to and including free round trip tickets. I’ve been offered credit vouchers on other overbooked flights, but it was never enough or there was a connection to make.
At the departure gate we learned the flight would be delayed about 30 minutes, making it impossible for us to catch the last BART train. There were 159 names on the standby list for our flight and they were asking for confirmed passengers to give up their seats. Manuela was skeptical.
At the gate desk, Nancy, the extremely pleasant United agent considering the crowd of people converging on her, beamed a huge smile when I asked what she was offering.
“Round trip ticket anywhere in the 48 states that United flies.”
She added that we would be put up at the Hilton Hotel for the night, give us $30 in food vouchers, and put on the 6:30 AM flight. With no connection to be make and the prospect of reaching San Francisco at 9:30 AM instead of midnight, I was ready to hand over my ticket. But I had to convince Manuela. We both said several times in the past few days that living out of a suitcase was getting tiresome.
“Get her up here. I’ll convince her,” Nancy said.
She did just that. Instead of arriving in San Francisco at midnight Monday night, we would arrive at 9:00 AM Tuesday with two free round-trip tickets anywhere! Staying at a Hilton was just the icing on the cake, or so I thought. Departing at 6:30 AM meant an early rising and we were already exhausted. I asked Nancy if we could take a later flight.
“There is an 8:30 AM flight, but all I have is coach.”
Manuela and I looked at each other, slightly puzzled.
“What do you have on the 6:30 flight?” I asked.
As we walked across the concourse to the Hilton Manuela and I kept looking at each other and giggling. We had difficulty believing it was true and we immediately began discussing possible destinations.
Hilton O’Hare Hotel, Chicago
The Hilton O’Hare, just a ten minute underground walk from the terminal put us up in a huge room, large enough to fit all three of our Paris hotel rooms. We slept just a few hours, spent the limit of our food vouchers at the airport Starbucks ($30 doesn’t go far in an airport terminal), and were ready to fly home early Tuesday morning (May 18). That flight was also booked and I wanted to ask about further compensation, but Manuela said enough was enough. (Nancy told us it’s possible to repeatedly surrender seats and get multiple free tickets).
I was slightly disappointed with our first class seats. We were unable to sit together, the seats didn’t fully recline, and they were forward of the cabin door. That meant economy passengers didn’t pass through first class and I didn’t get to enjoy their envious stares! We finally got home early Tuesday afternoon.
I’d heard so many horror stories about the French that I went to Paris expecting to dislike it. But I enjoyed it immensely. Paris is a wonderful city and the people were pleasant. Shop owners, waiters, even strangers on the street were friendly and helpful. I wonder if the authors of those horror stories were polite guests in France. “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame,” is a far more gracious greeting than “Do you speak English?”
Manuela asked me what French clichés I found to be true. Baguettes really are the staple of the French diet. Every morning we saw people walking down the street clutching a baguette from the local patessirie. The other cliché about Paris is that it is the most romantic city in the world. It is, but not just the hand-holding kind of romance. It’s the amazing sights, the rich history, and the beautiful culture. Paris really is trés romantique!
Where to next?
Sunday 16 May 2010
May 16, 2010
One stereotype I often heard about the French is that they are unfriendly. I arrived in France prepared to be ignored or openly looked down upon, particularly as an American tourist. But I found the opposite to be true. Certainly there was one or two short tempered waiters when we were first in Paris with Manuela’s family, but that’s to be expected whenever a party of 12 sit down to eat dinner.
Traveling with someone who speaks the local language fluently, makes traveling easier. But the elderly lady who approached us outside Gare Centrale in Strasbourg as we studied a local bus map didn’t question our language abilities before she offered to help us understand the multi-colored lines. And it was clear that we were visitors to the woman who offered to help us find our hotel as we stood on a Montparnasse street corner with our luggage in hand.
Pont Couverts, Strasbourg
Before leaving Strasbourg Friday morning (May 14), we stored our luggage at the train station and visited Barrage Vauban, ancient water gates built to control city flooding. Also nearby are the Pont Couverts, covered bridges that are no longer covered.
Our high speed TGV train to Paris had “574 Km/hr” blazoned beside each door to advertise it’s record speed. That’s 356 MPH! I don’t think we traveled that fast during our 2 ½ hour trip back to Paris, but it was a fast comfortable ride. By noon we were standing on that Montparnasse street corner getting directions to our hotel from a friendly Parisenne.
Hotel Transcontinental Paris
We were lucky to have made a reservation the night before; the Hotel Transcontinental Paris desk clerk said all the rooms were now booked. Our room, unacceptably small by American standards, was big enough for a double bed and a small wardrobe. The bathroom was equally tiny; I had to sit sideways on the toilet. But it clean, quiet, and modernly furnished.
Manuela and I spent our first afternoon back in the capital visiting Isle St. Louis, the sister island to Isle de la Cité. I’d read about these islands a lot in books and travel guides but could not develop a mental image – inhabited islands exist in the oceans, not in rivers.
View of Isle de la Cité from Isle St. Louis
These two islands, each about six city blocks in size, are within a few hundred feet of each other. Several bridges span between them and both banks of the Seine; one bridge connects the two. Paris was first settled on Isle de la Cité and it is home to Notre Dame and other tourist attractions. In comparison, Isle St. Louis doesn’t have any tourist attractions aside from one street lined with restaurants and boutiques. Manuela and I were drawn to Isle St. Louis because of the quieter atmosphere and because of Berthollin, a homemade ice cream shop.
With our gourmet cones, we strolled around the island’s riverside promenade then continued our walk on the Left Bank and browsed through the bouquinistas, who have been selling used books on the quai since the 16th century. Shopping second hand bookstores has become something of a hobby for us and I was tempted to buy an old copy Victor Hugo, despite the French only editions. The bouquinistas have expanded their selections these days to include kitschy photographs of Paris and old Playboy magazines.
During our long afternoon walk, we happened upon a Starbuck Coffee shop in the St. Michel district and I coaxed Manuela inside. It wasn’t the quality of espressos and coffees in France that filled me with delight at the sight of that familiar green and black Starbucks’s emblom, in fact the espressos and coffees in France have been wonderful. It was simply the serving size. I like an American sized cup of joe I can nurse for an hour to so while reading a book, one that needs reheating before it’s half consumed. In France café doble means a cup with two sips instead of one.
Despite the chatty Brit girl sitting next to us, I enjoyed a grande cup of coffee while reading Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, a great book for anyone thinking of visiting France. In 2002 Turnbull, an Australian on vacation in Europe, moved to Paris to be with her new boyfriend – no friends, no job. It’s a very familiar plot. Almost French is about Turnbull’s experiences acclimating to the French culture. Many of her anecdotes and observations are echoed in Polly Platt’s 1994 guide to working in France, French or Foe?
Baudelaire’s grave, Cimetiere Montparnasse, Paris
For Americans, the Door’s Jim Morrison is the most well known inhabitant of Paris’s many cemeteries; and no visit to a foreign city with Manuela is complete without at least one visit to a local graveyard. But Manuela has seen Morrison’s grave, which is now fenced off, so we decided to visit Cimetierre Montparnasse just a few blocks from our hotel Saturday morning (May 15). Many well known French citizens are buried there, but the poet Claude Baudelaire, was the only one I was familiar with. Besides seeking out Cimetierre Montparnasse’s famous tombs, Manuela and I enjoyed some of the more unique markers, including two rusty hands and a large ceramic cat.
In the afternoon, we returned to the Montmartre district via the Metro. We got off at the sytem’s deepest station, Abbesse, and walked up 181 spiral steps to the street. The entrance to this Metro station is still covered by one of the few original iron and glass awnings, designed by Hector Guimard in 1899. We and other patrons were serenaded by a series of strolling musicians while having breakfast at a nearby sidewalk café. After lunch we returned to the St. Germain des Pres to find Les Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp. These cafes and others nearby were frequented by Ernest Hemingway and other writers.
Abesses Metropolitan Station, Paris
There are many wonderful museums in Paris, but one to be missed is Musée Duvernet. I was disappointed at the French only exhibit about the history of Paris which seemed to focus mostly on furniture and clothing. It was during our next museum visit, in the former home of Victor Hugo that I finally reached my fill of history and art exhibits.
Chez Victor Hugo is an interesting (and free) exhibit on the life and times of the great author and, unbeknownst to me, statesman; but the lengthy audio guide ($6.50) dragged on. One particular quote delighted me. While writing a son about his attempts to decorate a home with second hand store discoveries, Hugo penned, “A junk fairy made eyes at me and the curio god befriended me.”
Chez Victor Hugo, Paris
Manuela and I had our first reasonably priced dinner Saturday night at a Chinese restaurant across the boulevard from our hotel. Until then we regularly paid $30-40 for simple dinners. Petit dejeuners (breakfast) typically cost $8.00, which is a lot for a cup of coffee, a croissant, and a glass of juice. But dinner at the Chinese restaurant was just $20.
The advantage to returning to Paris instead of squeezing in a visit to Normandy was the chance to slow down. This morning (Sunday, May 16) we visited two local markets not frequented by crowds too busy rushing from one grand sight to another. The market on Rue Mouffetard was small, it had an unmistakably neighborhood atmosphere. The local butcher, fromager, grocer, and baker, were all selling their goods along a narrow cobble stone street that ended at a church.
Rue Mouffetard Marche, Paris
We bought fresh apples from the grocer and croissants from the patisserie and watched the baker slice large chunks of steaming bread sold by weight. While riding the Metro back to our hotel, we passed a much larger market, though more commercial, so we wandered through it
Back at the hotel, we waited in the lobby until noon, twenty-four hours before our departure tomorrow so we could check-in early online and choose good seats. The British Airways website announced that their cabin crews would go on strike the day after our return home. I got checked in, but because Manuela booked her flight through a travel agent in Graz, she could not.
Isle de La Cité, Paris
Rather than spend our last Parisian night in a high priced hotel and leave early in the morning, we decided to book an economical room at an airport hotel. But we still had an afternoon left in the city of lights, so we stored our luggage at the Montparnasse hotel and took another long walk along the Seine’s right bank.
We passed through a sculpture parked inhabited by homeless men, past the bouquinistas across from Isle St. Louis, and ate another ice cream (Hagen Das) on the banks of the Seine. We wandered around the St. Michel area and happened upon L’Hotel, a swanky hotel that in an earlier, seedier time was where Oscar Wilde died. A few blocks away, we found another of Ernest Hemingway’s many Paris homes.
Today was one of the warmest days in France, so we finished our afternoon by soaking in the sunshine on an old stone bench outside the Musée de Louvre. Have I mentioned that this city just oozes romance?
Musée de Louvre, Paris