Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Lazy Winter Day in Paris

The Sunday Bird Market, Bookstores and The Luxembourg Gardens

Today was supposed to include a trip to Paris' Sunday Bird Market and a tour of the Palais Garnier (The Paris Opera.) 

It was sunny so the Parisians were out in droves enjoying family time. They start off by lining up at their favorite boulangerie. On a cold day with stores mostly closed, they bundle up and visit a museum, library or park. The very old and the very young get rolled, everyone else walks. The crazy ones go running in shorts.

I began the day with a wake for my lost scarf. What would any trip be without a lost scarf?

So anyway....

The bird market is located near the center of the Ile de la Cite. The Ile is the island in the middle of the Seine with the Cathedral of Notre Dame at one end, Sainte Chapelle in the middle and La Pont Neuf on the other.

The Place Dauphine on The Ile de la Cite 

I think it was just too cold for them to sell their more exotic birds (like the bizarre mop-top chickens we saw on a previous trip.) So today there were lots of small birds along with squirrels, ferrets, chinchillas and little bunnies. Miss M swooned over the ferrets alerting me of her plans to get a ferret when she has a place of her own. Duly noted.

Kids and Bunnies

We started off for the Garnier via the Louvre for lunch in its big (and warm) food court. Miss M spent some quality time buying books at the Virgin Megastore. I found a new scarf.

The Pyramid Entry to The Louvre

We then made our way to the Garnier Opera.

The Garnier Opera

The Garnier is named after the architect (a nice touch). This neo-baroque edifice was commissioned by Napolean III.

It took 13 years to build with construction delayed at one point by a huge amount of water in (what would become) its basement. While pumping out the water they created a lake under the building. Hence, the subterranean lake on which The Phantom of the Opera sails. Lore also has it that the ghost of the Phantom demands a salary and requires Box 5 remain unsold for his exclusive use. The first managers of the Opera complied.

Well Phantom or no, although there are usually guided tours "en Anglaise" on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, this Sunday it was closed. I guess that just constitutes another reason to plan a return to Paris. Sigh.

Shadow Shot of The Column
La Place Vendome

We retraced our steps across La Pont Neuf making a stop at Notre Dame (which looks amazing after many years of cleaning.) We also stopped to watch a bird lady.

Miss M on La Pont Neuf

Notre Dame After Mr. Clean was Finished

The Wonderful Gargoyles

A Bird Lady

We made our way back through the Latin Quarter with a stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens. With a fountain partially glaciated and its bare squared off trees, the park was a spectacular way to end the day.

The Box Trees

The Luxembourg Palace and Gardens

Only one full day left, We plan to sleep in then just bum around. I am already starting to miss my morning tart du pomme.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The BD!

Some Very Serious Comic Book Art

What do you get when you celebrate spectacular Bande Dessinee (comic strip) art, with thousands of devoted French followers joined by over a quarter of a million foreign visitors, all of whom take over one of the most beautiful hillside cities in France for 4 days every January?

You get the International Exposition de Bande Dessinee (which everyone just refers to as "The BD".)

I have to be honest I had never heard of Angouleme, or the BD before my sequential artist daughter informed me that the largest comic art festival in Europe was held each year in the City of Angouleme France.

Making it to Angouleme

I now know exactly where Angouleme is. It is in southwest France about 60 miles from Bordeaux. And it is spectacular. 

Many of its buildings date back to the 13th century and it just drips history. But unlike a lot of similar European cities, it (so far) seems to have avoided becoming a trite tourist cliche.

Viewing the Modern City Below 
(From The Ramparts of the Old City)

Some Very Picturesque Historic Architecture

Many Post Industrial Buildings Have Been Successfully Re-Purposed

The fact that Angouleme is a mecca for sequential artists, animators and graphic artists, may in part, be rooted in its history as the hub of the French paper making industry (which dates back to the 14th century.) The paper factories came here because of the uniform temperature and volume of water found in Angouleme's local rivers.

Archival Photo Shows A Perfect Location for Paper Making

This being France, guess what the biggest use of paper is? Yep, its those damned gauloise and  gitanes cigarettes. Despite modern indoor smoking bans (Brother Give Me An A-men!) the French of all ages still seem to love their smokes. 

Good thing France has universal medical care....

Despite my worry that I may be venturing into an uber geek-a-thon, I wound up enjoying the BD immensely. I loved how seriously the art is taken. I mean once you see their wonderful year-round comic strip museum, you appreciate how serious they are about their BD.

The Parodies Exhibit in The Comic Strip Museum

Since there is no single building big enough to house the event, they put up tents and spread the festival around the entire city in 24 different venues all connected by free buses.

One of the nicest features of the BD is that artists from all over the world chat with fans while autographing and embellishing their books.

Artists Signing 

Since there are few hotels in Angouleme, most visitors wind up staying in Paris (or elsewhere) and commute each day on one of the trains arriving from all directions.

Most of the locals were warm and very happy to see their city overrun for a few days with Euro laden guests. Others seemed hell bent on running down their visitors. After two little urban assault vehicles tried to run over my feet in the crosswalk, it was all I could do to resist palming one of those little Euro's for some serious auto-graphing of my own.

Miss M in Her Mileu

Personally, I Loved the Baru Exhibit

Miss "M" now has a wheelbarrow load of new books (most in French) and I have a new t-shirt with TinTin's pup "Snowy" on it.

Tomorrow (if we can get up early enough) we plan to visit Paris' Sunday Bird Market on the Isle de la Cite. After that who knows.    

Bonsoir Mes Amis!

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Riding the Thalys

Late For the Train!

Rant Warning....

In Flagstaff there is (or used to be) a coffee shop called "Late for the Train". It used to employ the surliest, most perforated, college kids at NAU. Today I thought about the name of the place as it looked like being "late for the train" was going to be our story.

First off we got up at the proverbial "O Dark Thirty", took our waiting taxi to the Brugge train station and arrived right on time. 

Hmmmm. OK our train is not listed on the big reader board.

When I inquire about our "once a day high speed Thalys train" to Paris, the station agent also looks perplexed. 

Never a good sign. 

I get the index finger in the air - the universal sign of "wait just a minute". He makes a couple of phone calls and tells us our train has been cancelled. He says we are to take a local to Brussels South and then catch another Thalys that will wait for us. 

I'm thinking "Uh Huh - Like they will hold a 200 MPH train for Miss M and I". In the words of Judy Tenuta "It Could Happen!"

When we get on the actual train, the ticket taker says when we get to Brussels Midi we need to make haste since they will be holding the Paris bound Thalys for us. I am now getting a bit impressed. I do however, point out that the last agent told us to get off at Brussels South. He shakes his head back and forth and says "No Midi!"

When we get to Midi he is there hustling us off the train and telling us which platform to go to. 

When we get to our platform there indeed is an announcement that the "Thalys is being held five minutes", and lo and behold our assigned seats from the earlier train are waiting for us.

We settle in, get served a lovely breakfast, and doze off in our big comfy seats. The rest of the smooth and blazingly fast trip to downtown Paris goes by unnoticed. 

Of course, instead of snoozing we could have plugged in our laptops to the power outlets at each seat and used the on board wi-fi.

Then like I said, when we arrived in Paris we were dropped right in the heart of the city, not way out at some outlying airport. 

So, I say to all those folks that preach that rail travel "can't work in the US". You may well be right for long cross country trips. But you are totally and completely wrong for America's high density corridors.

We are just flat out behind the rest of the world when it comes to fast, efficient, rail service for corridors like SF to LA, or LA to Vegas, or PHX to LA, SEA to PDX, Florida to DC, and all up and down the Eastern shore.

So. as you sit stalled in daily traffic on I-5, or I-95, or I-405, or I-15, or I-10 one person to a car, think about it.

If I even had the option, which I don't, and certainly won't in my lifetime, I'd sure rather take a train to LA and have a zipcar waiting for me on the other end.

Tomorrow, we will go to France's huge Comics Exposition in Angouleme. Angouleme is more than half the way from Paris to Spain.

We'll get up and go get on a TGV train. It'll be fast. And we'll have nearly all day at the show. We will then return to Paris in time for a late dinner. Neat!

Till tomorrow.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Towers of Brugge

Windmill Chasing on a Chilly But Sunny Day

Yesterday we took a long walk viewing Brugge's superb medieval gothic architecture, its 3 major towers (two are part of major churches and one is the belfry on the Grand Place), and its very picturesque canals.

Our visit disclosed that (like seemingly everything else in Brugge,) its churches are undergoing major refurbishment. This is a good thing as the historic town of Brugge has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is deserving of great care.

Brugge dates back to the 12th century. By 1420 its strategic location made it a magnet for residents from all over the continent and one of Europe's major economic capitals. This was reinforced when the Duke of Burgundy, Phillipe le Bon, (known as "Phillipe The Good") made it a center of court life and became a patron of Flemish artists including Brugge's Jan van Eyck.

By 1500 when the discovery of America shifted the economic energy of Europe from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean Brugge entered in a period of decline (similar to Amsterdam.) With the development of canals between 1600 to 1800 Brugge modestly re-established its maritime connections and again prospered.

Brugge has been controlled by the French, the English, the Hapsburg's, and the Netherlands. It did not become part of Belgium until 1830.

So, back to the towers! In the case of the churches, once you are inside the churches, there are no visible connections to suggest the immense towers above. The tower of the Church of Our Lady is over 400' tall and is the tallest structure in Brugge. In fact its tower is the second tallest brick structure in the world. During our visit it was covered up with scaffolding and tyvek.

The Interior of the Church of Our Lady

The interior of the Church of Our Lady contains a sculpture by Michelangelo. It is one of the few pieces by Michelangelo outside of Italy. It has been looted twice, once by the French and again by the Nazi's. Luckily it has been recovered each time.

The second major church tower in Brugge belongs to St. Saviour's Cathedral. This is the oldest parish church in Bruges. While this tower is not covered, the interior of this church is undergoing major refurbishment. There were architects and engineers working inside the cathedral while we toured it. I got to watch them as they were scoured the ceiling with their mega power LED flashlights carefully inspecting then making notations on their field drawings.

The Tower of St. Saviour's

The Spectacular Pipe Organ of St. Savior's

Clearly Brugge gets its construction work done in winter. In fact there are cranes seemingly all over Brugge. We awakened to jackhammers two days running.

The last major tower in Brugge is not connected with a church - it is the town belfry on the Grand Place (Market Square.) This is the tower you can climb if you want to see the view. We opted not to climb the nearly 400 narrow freezing cold little steps in the tower.

The Brugge Belfry Used in the Movie "In Bruges"

Today (Thursday) was an easy laid back day. We walked to the edge of Brugge to two of its windmills. In the evening we enjoyed a very fine dinner (rack of lamb for me, scampi fettucine for Miss M).

Tomorrow we get up at 5 AM for our Thalys high speed train ride back to Paris. The balance of Friday is for exploring the Left Bank. Saturday is set aside for our trip to the Comic Art Exposition in Angouleme.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On to Brugge!

Making Chocolate and Enjoying Comfort Food!

Tuesday morning we got up fairly early, and took a long walk in Amsterdam's beloved Vondel Park. We also witnessed the passing of a spectacular carriage (not sure if it was a wedding or a funeral) and then returned to Station Centraale to catch our train for Brugge, Belgium. 

Vondel Park
(9 out of 10 Amsterdamer's visit Vondel Park at least once each year!)

Old and New in Amsterdam

The trains we took were locals, so we made a lot of stops. Although it took longer, we passed the amazing skylines of The Hague and newly hip Rotterdam. We changed trains in Antwerp's very cool train station. Parts of this station are stunningly modern, yet other parts are fantastically old. 

Tuesday evening we checked into the lovely hotel De Prinsenhof in Brugge. This hotel is small and feels more like living in the home of an old family friend than a hotel. It is also very close to the historic core of the City.

De Prinsenhof Lobby

Today we went to the morning market and then toured Brugge's Chocolate Museum and saw a chocolate making demonstration. We learned chocolate in moderation is actually health food and it does not cause acne! There's a relief! We had hoped to take a chocolate making class, but they did not get the requisite number of participants, so it was cancelled. Bummer.

Morning Shopping on Bruges Market Square

So we continued our sightseeing. Brugge is truly lovely and on such cold winter days, it is blissfully empty. 

Truly any direction you walk, there is something wonderful. There are two huge cathedrals (one with a Madonna sculpture by Michelangelo that was intended for the beautiful Cathedral in Sienna, but was snatched up first by a patron in Brugge.) 

We saw lots and lots of chocolate shops and ogled the beautiful canals. The canals in Brugge are not like Amsterdam's formalized canals, they are more like the meandering dreamy ones in Venice. Very picturesque.

Miss M and the Canals of Bruges
(OK film buffs that is the tower from the movie "In Bruges" beyond)

After a cold day with a lot of walking, we went into a restaurant with a roaring fireplace and ate "Flemish" comfort food. Miss M had carbonades (beef stew cooked in beer) and I had moules and frites (steamed mussels in a light cream sauce and fries.) Tomorrow is open, maybe we'll go see some windmills!

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

Last Full Day in Amsterdam

A Flea Market and Amsterdam's City Museum 

Before I begin, let me express profound sorrow to the families of fellow travelers killed or injured in the Moscow airport explosion today. Words fail me.

Today, based on advice from our bike guru (Mike) we changed plans and elected to pass on the Rijksmuseum. Mike pointed put that although they are charging full ticket prices (50% more than the Louvre?!), much of the museum is actually closed during a mega asbestos abatement, renovation, and expansion program. So we opted instead on Amsterdam's City Museum.  

But first we joined lots of locals visiting the Monday Noordermarkt. This is the farmer's market / flea market next to Amsterdam's Noorderkerk (North Church). We found an amazing amount of old records, books, used clothes, and new cloth for sale (people here must still sew.)  

The walk to get there along the Prinsengracht (Prince's Canal) with the sun peeking through the clouds here and there was very nice. Along the way we saw a blue heron, tour boats, and kids on paddle boats.

Urban Widlife Along the Canals

More Street Art

Sigh... A Lovely Old Citroen

Between the market and the museum we made an impromptu stop in a bakery that featured cupcakes (Miss M was very happy.)

A Milla Vanilla With Chocolate Sprinkles

The Amsterdam City Museum is housed in a re-purposed orphange. It features history, art (including some Rembrandts!) and featured a temporary exhibition of Amsterdam's current men's fashion scene. 

We finished the day with another terrific dinner at the best deal in Amsterdam - the upstairs "La Place" food court in the V&D Department Store. We had a wood fired pizza, cranberry tart, and a big juicy, cooked to order, burger w/frites (dinner for two for 20 Euros!)

We then made a quick stop at the Jamin Candy shop and called it a day. 

So Many Choices...

Tomorrow we have some time to take a morning walk in the Vondelpark. Then it is off to Station Centraale to catch a train to Bruges via Brussels.

Amsterdam is a truly lovely and unique city. In the words of the old Apple ad they "Think Different" here, it seems to be working.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bike Rides and Rijsttafels

Amsterdam XXX 

After another night of raucous nightlife just outside our hotel room window in the Leidseplein (Leidse Square), we woke up ready to enjoy a wonderfully quiet Sunday in Amsterdam.

The Leidseplein Viewed From Our Hotel Room

Partly counting on Sunday morning being a bit quieter, I had scheduled a 2 hour bike tour from Mike's Bikes starting at noon. Despite the cold crisp temps and a sky that was sputtering a few rain sprinkles now and then, we ventured out on our big "Townie" cruiser bikes. Our guide was Mike from Minnesota. He had been a history major and started the tour with an abridged history of the city. Mike skillfully led us novices through the city without any trips to the trauma ward.

Our Guide Mike Describes His Adopted City

We rode across the "narrow bridge" and then across the length and breadth of the City.

One of the "Narrow" Bridges

Passed Some Pretty Interesting Street Art

We also got advice on restaurants that the locals eat at, information about the cost of living, and just a lot of information that was not sanctioned by the tourist bureau.

One thing that was interesting was finding out that the white "XXX" found on a black stripe set in a red background is the official symbol of Amsterdam. Now before you jump to conclusions it actually stands for three Saint Andrew's crosses.

The Steeple of The West Church With The Three "X"'s

Saint Andrew was a fisherman crucified on an "X" shaped cross in the first century. Since Amsterdam began as a fisherman's town and has been brought to its knees to prayer by three disasters: fires, floods, and plagues, it was logical that Amsterdam would adopt the three "X"'s as its coat of arms in 1505.

Along the Ride

We then returned to the hotel to warm up. I took a break in the executive lounge for a nice warm latte and a little time spent watching the ski jump competition from Zakopane Poland. 

Dinner was in the Srikandi Indonesian restaurant for a uniquely Dutch invention the "Rijsttafel" or "Rice Table". This is where you are served a big bowl of rice and then lots of small dishes with meat and vegetable Indonesian style tapas. The food was wonderful and the overheard conversation from the  band of British college boys at the table next to ours was a hoot.

Tomorrow we take in Amsterdam's Monday Flea Market. Mike says we could probably buy back some of his stolen bikes.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Amsterdam Four Decades Later

A Study in Irony

The last time I visited Amsterdam it was part of a student tour when I graduated from high school. That was a long, long, long time ago.

Despite the many intervening years I remember a lot from that visit. Our group had just come from London where everyone seemed to be kind but a bit stiff and in a big hurry.

In Amsterdam people were also in a hurry but they were very welcoming and freely offered big genuine smiles. Besides being in a hurry, it was clear that the Dutch were hard workers. In a country where over 50% of its land is below sea level, these people wage a centuries-old battle against the sea itself. Despite global warming they are still winning.

I remember the Dutch were trim and bi-lingual. The canals were picturesque and the whole concept of the red-light district, well that was just plain odd.

There were lots and lots of tulips and Rembrandt's Night Watch was showcased in the Rijksmuseum.

Now upon my return I find Amsterdam to be the ultimate city of contrasts. It is more diverse and its people are still tolerant and work hard. They are still in a hurry (getting wherever they are going on bicycles.) They still smile and they speak lots of languages. They speak English somewhat better than most Americans I know.

Amsterdam is still filled with wonderful architecture, great food and world class art.

The red lights are still on (they are now sustainably fluorescent) and there are casino's and nightclubs.  "Coffee" shops are where you now go to buy and consume dope. "Smart" shops are where you buy and imbibe in mushrooms. In a truly perfect example of Dutch irony, it is illegal to smoke cigarettes indoors in public places, so you can smoke dope, but not cigarettes. In fact, these shops have to offer non-smoking refuges for their employees.

Amsterdam is like Madrid, it never sleeps. The Friday night post-bar traffic jams resulted in honking horns outside our Marriott windows until about 3 AM. Trust me, I know.

So we fought back. We just slept in. 

When we finally rousted we realized we were lucky, our January day, while a bit grey, was without rain. So we took a long walk to the Flower Market, went window shopping (with seemingly everyone else in Amsterdam,) and took a canal cruise.

The Amsterdam I saw today now seems sort of like Europe's version of Las Vegas. American's go to Nevada to drink (to excess), take in a show, and gamble. Amsterdam now seems to be where the world's college kids go to party and get stupid.

Canal Cruise Boat 

The Boats Offer Comfy Warm Winter Sightseeing

Despite Being Winter the Flower Market Blooms

Lots and Lots of Bicycles

No Problems Eating Well.......

Or Drinking
(Including the Stuff You Can't Drink at Home)

There is Lots of Cheese!

400 Year Old Buildings Resting on Wooden Pilings 
A Prescription For a Bit of Sagging

The Gateway to the Red Light District
(Couldn't Help But Notice The "Jesus Loves You" Sign is in English....)

And Did I Mention That There Are Lots of Diamonds Here?
There Are. 

Tomorrow we take a bicycle tour with our old friend Mike's Bikes (I think these are the same folks we toured Paris with many years ago.)

Maybe a trip to a Indonesian Rice Table restaurant for dinner!

All the best from lovely, amazing, ironic Amsterdam!

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Seine and The Musee d'Orsay

Big, Bright, Tiring

Today we mustered the energy to take in the beautiful Musee d'Orsay. 

Getting there was half the fun delivering views of the Grand Palais, the (very full) Seine, and the breathtaking Eiffel Tower.

Miss M and La Tour Eiffel

Like any architect or engineer, I love the Eiffel Tower. It is perhaps the most cherished symbol of France and certainly the most recognizable icon of Paris.

It stood as the tallest structure in the world from 1889 until 1930 when New York's Chrysler Building eclipsed it.

When German troops occupied Paris, the French cut its elevator cables so that Hitler would have to walk up the 300 steps to the observation deck. Upon arrival he remained at its base.

When the Germans put the obscene swastika bearing flag on the tower, providence blew it off. They followed up with a smaller flag only to find it soon replaced by a Frenchman who scaled the Tower and returned a tri-color flag of France to the top.

As the Allies neared Paris, Hitler ordered his retreating troops to destroy the tower. Admirably, his troops disobeyed.

Since December 1999 the tower has operated new high power searchlights and blasted 200,000 flashbulbs every hour making it "sparkle". This is a sight not to be missed.

The Musee d'Orsay

The Musee d'Orsay occupies a former train station just across the Seine from the Louvre. The magnificent Beaux-Arts steel building was completed in 1900.

The Gare d'Orsay opened along with Paris' dazzling new Metro subway system in time for the World's Exposition Universelle.

Amazingly, less than four decades later, short platforms made it impractical for modern trains. It fell into disuse.

By 1977 the government decided to repurpose it as an art museum in conjunction with the major renovations of the Louvre. It opened as a spectacular new art museum in 1986 and is now easily the second most popular museum in Paris.

It now showcases the works of the French Impressionists and France's stunning mid-1800's era sculptures.

Now, I have to admit, as I get older I have become weary of "squint" art (impressionism). So I found myself breezing through a lot of the galleries. I do, however, love this museum's model of the Paris Opera and its unparalleled collection of French Art Nouveau furniture, art, pottery and whole rooms. 

Regrettably, three things gigged today's d'Orsay visit: they no longer allow photos, they are in the middle of an extensive renovations (i.e. no access to the inside of the big upstairs clock,) and all that walking caught up with us rendering us a couple of droopy-eyed bench zombies at mid-day.

After rallying, we crossed the Seine on the nearby footbridge (the Passerelle Leopold-Sedar-Senghor). It has a statue of our most famous Ambassador to France (Thomas Jefferson) on the Left Bank!

Fastened to the bridge are lots and lots of padlocks. I bent down to look at them and realized each has names. A little research discloses that lovers sign the locks, lock them to the bridge, and throw keys into the Seine. Seems appropriate for the world's most romantic City.

The "Love" Locks

The not-so-romantic Paris City government, frustrated with the practice, removed them all one night last May. So these are the new locks added in just the past seven months!

Once across the bridge we were again in the Tuileries Gardens.

Perfectly Manicured Trees
Parisians Walking Beloved Canines
(News flash: Many now clean up after their dogs!)

Our chilly stroll led us back to Place de La Concorde where the sun was setting.

Sunset Place De La Concorde

In front of the hotel we stopped to watch some darned good street performers. A fitting end to a great day.

Street Performers on the Champs Elysees

Tomorrow we ride one of France's uber high speed trains - destination: Amsterdam!

Roadboy's Travels © 2011