Monday, June 30, 2008

Dude... You Gotta See This

What can I say about the Louvre? Words cannot describe. Pictures cannot portray. You must simply go. Look at the ceilings yourself. See the paintings that take up the entire wall. See the ancient sculptures that are finely detailed. Walk right up to them. With no glass or ropes between you. (Except for the Mona Lisa, of course, which has both.) I only wish I had time to see the apartments of Napolean III, but you can't do everything, I guess.

So, the Paris I saw today was a bit cleaner than the Paris that I saw yesterday. After taking the metro down to the Louvre, and spending a few hours there, we ate a late lunch at a cafe across the street, where I successfully requested menus from the waiter in French. It probably sounded awful to him, and after that I could barely figure out how to say anything else. But lunch was good, and we then wandered over to Pont Neuf, enjoying excellent views of the River Seine, the Eiffel Tower, and le Ile de la Cite. The island splits the river and was itself the original city of Paris.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the island, walking from the east tip west to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We didn't go up into the towers, but enjoyed plenty of time inside. I spent €3 to visit the Treasury which included a lot of religious relics mounted in some very impressive gold-and-jewel devices, as well as impressive gifts from monarchs of long ago, including the coronation crown of (I think) Charles I, and a decorative ceremonial orb donated by Napoleon I to celebrate his coronation by the Pope in the Cathedral itself. (There's a painting of this event in the Louvre.)

We had meant to stop at Chatelet on the way to Pont Neuf, but never noticed it until walking back over Pont Neuf. It's a pillar in the middle of the park across the river's frontage street from the bridge that has (I kid you not) four sphinxes spouting water in all four directions. Uh, yeah, okay. :)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Bonjour mon amis!

Welcome to... Paris! City of lights! (and, um, a lot of litter. what the heck?!)

The past two days have been WAY too busy, so I'm just glad that we successfully got through the Paris metro and checked in to our hostel on rue de Crimee, just west of Pont Crimee.

Quick review, yesterday we used the London Pass to get in to a tour of the Globe Theatre (highly recommended), St. Paul's Cathedral (way highly recommended), the Tower of London (highly recommended), and the Tower Bridge (waste of time).

Yeah, I was surprised, the Tower Bridge is far more interesting to simply look at than it is to visit. Going to the Globe Theatre was like a Shakespearian pilgrimmage, so if that's your interest, you must do it. St. Paul's Cathedral was simply MONUMENTAL. I cannot get over it. It's like giants worship there. However, I will say that I was more impressed by the stained glass work at the Bath Abbey.

The Tower of London is a complete anachronism. A real medieval castle in the middle of London. Even amongst many very old, historic structures, it stands out as from a completely earlier time. I mean, the central White Tower was built by William the Conquerer -- still standing 964 years later. And most of it was finished by the year 1400. And the Crown Jewels cannot be missed. The strangest item had to be William's golden Coronation Spoon. Almost a thousand years old, and it looks brand new. They actually walk you through a giant two-room safe.

So on to Paris. I'll try to be brief.

Last night, we took the train to Portsmouth. I wouldn't say we got "lost", but we were given some very poor directions with badly estimated walking time. The police helped redirect us as we walked in pitch black darkness along the shorefront. And then a bit later we finally got a taxi. Then this morning we went to the wrong ferry, and had to take another taxi to the correct port. We made it right at check-in time, which was good, because the ferry left way early.

We landed near Caen, France around 10am, then took the train to Bayeux to see Normandy. Which was basically closed, because it's Sunday. We still could have seen the Bayeux Tapestry (google it), and Omaha Beach, but the train station didn't have lockers, and the buses weren't running. So we said, "forget this. Let's go to Paris and rest." That was a good idea.

By the time the train arrived in Paris, we had strongly realized that if you take the SNCF (France national rail), you need to reserve a seat ahead of time. Or you will have to stand. For a long, loooong time. From there, we figured out enough French to communicate the purchase of the metro tickets and navigated the metro to the hostel.

Two things: One, I was really glad we built our subway skills in London first, so we understood what the metro was trying to make us do. Second, the hostel (St. Christopher's Paris) is like an oasis of a Paris littered with trash all over the ground. It's the only place so far in all of France that I've seen that isn't sketch. I hope it's not like that around the Louvre and Notre Dame tomorrow. I'm kinda "homesick" for London.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Stonehenge, Bath, and the Tower of London

Hopefully I can write this in seven minutes... :)

Today we check out of our hostel in London. We're going to see the Tower of London, the Globe Theatre, and St. Paul's Cathedral. After all that, we take the train to Portsmouth on the southern coast, and spend the night there, so that we can make it to the ferry by 6:15 tomorrow morning. That ferry will take us to Caen, France, so that we can see Normandy on our way in to Paris.

Yesterday we went to Stonehenge and Bath. Stonehenge was neat, but about what I expected. Bath was absolutely incredible. One of the top couple highlights on the trip so far. If you ever get the chance, you must go. The whole town was built in Roman-style architecture even BEFORE they discovered the ancient Roman baths. And there are decorated pigs everywhere, as a historical reference. They remind me of the fish that decorated the streets of SLO. But these at least make sense. :)

One strange note: the quotation mark and "at" (@) symbol keys are switched on the keyboards. Very inconvenient. :)

Love y'all.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Three Days in London

So... I was hoping to post pictures, but that doesn't look possible from the computer that I get to use. So hopefully I can describe some of this to you...

London is walking walking walking, on the streets, but mostly getting to and from the Tube -- the London Underground. But when I'm on the streets I'm stunned at just how much brick architecture there is in this city. Just about everything is built with brick, except for the landmark monuments.

England is moving too quick! After arriving on Tuesday, we checked into the hostel and went down to the London Eye for a view of the city, and then Parliament Square, and walked around the Houses of Parliament, and then Westminster Abbey.

On Wednesday, we had a great English breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon on toast near Leicester ("Lester") Square, before heading over to the O2 for the Tutankhamen exhibit. All the walking had us thoroughly exhausted by the time we returned to the YHA Hostel. After about an hour, we finally got back out and headed over to Covent Garden for dinner, looking in vain for a Fish 'n Chips place. We were foiled but found a decent place to eat nonetheless.

After dinner, we finally made our way over to the Queen's Theatre to see Les Miserables, which was absolutely incredible. They used this rotating stage to move around the action and the set. We had excellent seats too, first row of the first balcony for halfprice -- £28 + tax -- because we'd waited in line after breakfast.

Yesterday was Wimbledon. I didn't know this, but most of the tickets are first come, first serve. The queue for it is enormous, but moves fairly quickly. We got £20 ground passes, having lined up around 9am, for gates that opened at 10, and we actually made it in aroud 11:30 I think. The other thing that surprised me about Wimbledon was how close you get to most of the matches. We didn't go to the main courts, but we did make it to the side courts. Many of which you're standing right alongside the court, though we sat in seats for the two that we saw the most of, including Haas upset Robredo.

We finally got our fish 'n chips dnner at a pub off Trafalger Square, which was under construction for Veteran's Day, which is today. So there were a lot of barricades around. Much to my surprise, the Square includes a statue of George Washington, which Virginia donated about 70 years ago.

After dinner we walked down Mall Ave to Buckingham Palace and looked around. It's actually bigger than you might think. From there we walked over to Hyde Park corner and took the tube over to the British Museum, whose exhibits closed earlier than we expected, so we only got to see the Great Hall. Don't know if we'll get to return. Someday I'm going to come back here and see more of it!

Today we're off to Stonehenge and the town of Bath, and tomorrow we'll hang out before making our way to Portsmouth, and the ferry to Caen, France on Sunday. Hopefully tomorrow we actually get the chance to go inside Westminster Abbey, but nonetheless we're going to see the Tower of London.

Please pray that my feet survive their blisters! :)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Thus Begins the Adventure

Technically, my adventure began yesterday, as I left San Luis yesterday in 105-degree heat to drive to Cheree & Marcos's wedding in Walnut Creek. Hooray for working air conditioning. The wedding was awesome -- brief ceremony, and I didn't know more than three people there, but got to eat with Cheree's boss who also didn't know anybody, and also Marcos's mother who was very nice. I hadn't even yet Marcos at that point, so that was funny to us.

Today, Ken, Megan and I are getting last-minute items together, and I write this from Megan's school where we're making Xerox's and can get wi-fi access.

Tomorrow we leave San Jose at nine for the airport, so we can get there around 10:30, in time for our 1pm flight. And then it's 17 hours to London! The anticipation is hardly bearable.

I'm not taking my laptop, so I don't know how often I'll get to write in Europe, or how easy it will be to upload pictures, but I'll definitely make an update if I get the chance.