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Tourists again

29 Aug
29 August 2017. One of our favorite things about living in Roma was telling people we lived there. When we traveled we felt just a little Continental. We could take a trip with minimal planning: except for needing cat sitters, we could be quite extemporaneous. Trains were easy and we didn’t obsess over packing perhaps because we were so at home in Europe.
We loved being able to go to Tuscany for the weekend or to stay for an entire week somewhere because we weren’t in a rush. We loved vacationing as Italians do, passing a summer month in the cool beauty of the Dolomites.
Now we will be American Tourists again. We’re going back!
One of our dreams for life-after-Roma has been to return and do long trips with long stays throughout Europe. We will go back to favorite places and visit some new-to-us places. Cat-and-house sitters are lined up for September and October. (Read about our sitters, Dan & Tracy, at their blog, Sitters on Tour.
This time it feels like mounting an expedition. We’ve never done a two-month trip before. We are committed to packing light: the same amount of stuff for 2 months as for a week, 21-inch-roll-aboard plus a day pack. And we will experience temps (based on averages) as warm as 73F/23C and as cool as 43F/6C. A packing challenge, for certain.
Where will we be?
Amsterdam, Munich, Ortisei, Venezia, Assisi, Roma (naturally), Paris, and London. We plan to fan out on day trips in many places.
Amsterdam: We have five full days and figure we will spend three in the city and take a couple of day trips, perhaps Leiden, Delft, Hoorn, and Enkhuizen. We are staying in Haarlem.
Munich: Only two nights to break up the trip to Ortisei. I was there when I was 19 and most of my memories revolve around beer gardens. We plan on a private tour to see some city highlights.
Venezia: We know the city well after eight (or is it nine?) visits and will have five full days this time. What new experiences should we add?   I am thinking of  Bassano del Grappa and maybe Chioggia.
Assisi: We visited Umbria in 2011 and want to revisit some favorites (Spello), do some hiking, and see some new towns (Norcia perhaps). We will be here for five nights, four full days, and have a full day of travel (naturally by train) between Venice and Assisi.
Roma: Planning to reconnect with the city, friends, and favorite restaurants.
With our three stops in Italy, we will overdose on the Italian food (pizza!) we’ve missed so much.
Paris: We’ve been five times for 2-to-7-night visits in the past 2 1/2 years, but the only forays beyond central Paris have been to Versailles and Giverny. I am thinking about Chartres this time. We’ll have 7 nights, 6 full days. (Never enough.)
London: Wrapping up with two weeks in London, we are staying in Westminster. We love just walking around London and will try to hit sights and sites we missed on our last three trips but we also want to do some day trips. Bletchley Park is on the list, and maybe Bath and Stonehenge with Canterbury and Dover in mind as well.
I will try to be a good little blogger and post regularly. General travel insights and experiences at www.GoodDayRome.com, pizza eating at www.OurWeeklyPizza.com, and hiking (Assisi, Ortisei) at www.ProjectEasyHiker.com. If you are not signed up for all three, consider giving me a follow on them.
“See” you from the continent!

 

 

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Even a great trip can have it’s share of problems

8 May
8 May 2016. I have written before about the pleasure of returning to a place. You can relax in the familiarity and explore beyond the usual locales of first-time tourists. Our third trip to London in four months afforded us an opportunity to get beyond Big Ben. We were familiar with the Tube, the bus system, and the city in general. We did not need a map at every turn. We were able to go into neighborhoods previously ignored by us, to find museums less patronized, and to generally enjoy this great city, even if it was unseasonably cold.
That does not mean our trip was trouble free. Oh no!  Our travels are usually problem-free and easy going. No missed trains, no bungled reservations, no illnesses, good meals, and few budget surprises. Pick your favorite cliché: Smooth as silk; Easy as pie; Clear sailing; A bed of roses. This time was somewhat different. We encountered a multitude of weird and annoying little things – things we came to call “wrinkles” in our trip. Perhaps because we were familiar with London, we were able to shrug off the annoyances with a dose of humor. 
I’ve interspersed this narrative with some pictures so you can see we really had a lovely trip. 
When touring Windsor Castle, Ric and I both felt a Disney-like quality. It was also perfect! So serene! No litter, no eating,, the grass "just so."

When touring Windsor Castle, Ric and I both felt a Disney-like quality. It was all so perfect! So serene! No litter, no eating, no smoking, and the grass “just so.”

ANother lovely view of Windsor Castle. The weather was the best we had in a week in London.

Another lovely view of Windsor Castle. The weather was the best we had in a week in London.

Gift shoppe at Windsor full of corgis -- stuffed corgis.

Gift shoppe at Windsor full of corgis — stuffed corgis.

We usually have terrific success with our lodging choices. Whether apartments, B&Bs or hotels, we usually have no complaints or they are so minor we don’t say anything. The flat we had this time in London was hardly a nightmare, but the lack of attention to detail became laughable. One or two “little things” I would brush off, but this place was chock full of wrinkles: Non-working lamps (yes we replaced the bulbs); no wastebaskets; VRBO advertised king-sized bed was a double, not even a queen; non-working heaters (did I mention it was cold?); No hot pads in the kitchen which we did not discover until we had a hot casserole ready to come out of the oven; A washer/dryer combo all-in-one that did such a bad job I had to iron our jeans because they came out of the dryer wrinkled in a way I did not know denim could wrinkle.
Somebody from the staff needs to stay here a few nights and realize what improvements could be made. (See Dear Vacation Rental Property Owner.)
The management sent a taxi to pick us up at St. Pancras as part of the service. The taxi driver apparently could not find the taxi rank and his non-English accent was so thick we could not understand him when he called to coordinate. We had to pay for a cab to the flat, no one offered to reimburse us, and they told us “this happens all the time.” WTF?
We had ordered groceries to be delivered by Waitrose, which has been described as the British Whole Foods. We had done this in March when we rented in a different location and it was flawless. This time, the delivery was quite late and we had plans. I called Waitrose and was told he should be there soon. It took three calls in all, only to find out the driver could not locate our building due to construction in the area. Seriously? I had to go out and walk around the area – about a 4 block square area of densely packed buildings – to find him and lead him in.
Then we had THE GREAT OVEN DISASTER. Our last night, a Friday, we decided to stay in, eat a pizza and salad, and watch a movie. We stopped at Waitrose where we’ve purchased fresh-made take-out pizzas before (yes our standards slipped this one night). I pre-heated the oven and after about 20 minutes Ka-BOOM! The inside glass door of the oven exploded, sending shards of glass flying all over the kitchen. It was safety glass, so the danger of getting cut was minimal, but it was scary, messy, and annoying. The outer oven door glass somehow stayed intact.
I was so stunned I neglected to take an illustrative picture. It looked a lot like the over door in the picture at the top left of this link. If you Google the topic you’ll find it seems to happen a lot. Boh!
Obviously, we were not cooking our takeaway pizza in that oven. We were already in our jammies and not inclined to get dressed again, so we called up Deliveroo for our postcode. We’d seen the ads throughout our week in London so we gave it a whirl. Great service! Twenty-three minutes after placing an order on their website, the delivery guy pulled up to our door on his motor scooter. It was not great pizza, but it was hot and it was delivered to our door.
The Imperial War Museum is a fine museum covering wars from WWI forward.

The Imperial War Museum is a fine museum covering wars from WWI forward. Not very busy on this clear, cold day.

Imperial War Museum, view to the main hall.

Imperial War Museum, view to the main hall.

Montgomery's jeep at teh Imperial War Museum.

Montgomery’s jeep at the Imperial War Museum.

St. Paul's Cathedral, our neighbor this trip.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, our neighbor this trip.

In yet another flat-related “wrinkle,” Ric left his wedding ring on the nightstand, remembering he might have done so when we were already locked up and keys pushed through the mail slot. Any attempt to go back or contact management to let us in (on a Saturday morning of a holiday weekend at 08:00) would have caused us to miss the EuroStar. The staff redeemed itself with true honesty: the cleaning service found the ring and it is being shipped back to us.
Sand dog. Saw this little guy sculpted at Piccadilly Circus. Where he got the sand....

Sand dog. Saw this little guy sculpted at Piccadilly Circus. Where do you suppose the sculptor got the sand?

This red telephone box was the model for all the booths to come. Still in pristine condition unlike most of them these days. Near the Royal Academy.

This red telephone box was the model for all the booths to come. Still in pristine condition unlike most of them these days. Near the Royal Academy.

I don;t know whay is cuter here: The little children on a school outing in their safety vests or the double-decker bus painted to promote Hawaiian pizza (which is a travesty in Italy).

I don’t know what is cuter here: The little children on a school outing in their safety vests or the double-decker bus painted to promote Hawaiian pizza (which is a travesty in Italy).

Finally, we had a couple of transportation wrinkles.
Waiting at Gare de Lyon in a lounge area, two French army soldiers with automatic weapons and a uniformed security guy from SNCF (French national train system) appeared. The SNCF guy asked us to move along for “security reasons” and they cleared the area! We lost no time in beating a retreat to our departure hall, although that meant waiting in the cold. No idea what was going on.
We always hope for minimal drama on the way home. Who wants to end a trip with stress? We got up at 4:30AM in order to make a train at 5:40AM out of Dijon. We were traveling all the way back to Roma from Dijon, 13.5 hours on 3 trains, so we dragged our sleep-deprived selves out before dawn. (Fortunately, our hotel room was equipped with a Nespresso machine. Heaven!) Arriving at the station, we got on the train, and there it sat. Apparently the conductor was a no show. Our 40 minutes to change trains in Lyon ticked away. If we missed the connection we would not get to Rome that night and the cat sitters were leaving, not to mention the prepaid ticket on Trenitalia that would be worthless if we missed the connection. Luckily when the conductor arrived the train driver stepped on it and we had a few minutes in Lyon to catch our connection. Whew!
Tombstones in Postman's Park, London, a park which grew out of a former burial ground. It includes a Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice as well.

Tombstones in Postman’s Park, London, a park which grew out of a former burial ground. It includes a Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice as well.

Did you know? The inspiration for the contemporary wedding cake was the steeple of St. Bride's Church, in London in the 18th century. The baker supposedly had this view out of his window in Ludgate.

Did you know? The inspiration for the contemporary wedding cake was the steeple of St. Bride’s Church, in London in the 18th century. The baker supposedly had this view out of his window in Ludgate.

It may look like spring in London, but it was cold enough to waer gloves every day. The tulips did not care.

It may look like spring in London, but it was cold enough to wear gloves every day. The tulips did not care.

Fools for Sherlock that we are, we did tour 221B Baker Street. it's cute and fun.

Fools for Sherlock that we are, we did tour 221B Baker Street. it’s cute and fun. We also took a walking tour of Sherlock sites with Brit Movie Tours. Very well done!

Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, is a monument at the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was stopped.

Fat Boy or the Golden Boy of Pye Corner, is a monument at the spot where the Great Fire of 1666 was stopped.

Last unshrouded picture of Big Ben for awhile. The Elizabeth Tower and the clock will undergo extenisve renovation soon.

Last unshrouded picture of Big Ben for awhile. The Elizabeth Tower and the clock will undergo extensive renovation soon.

And a few more snaps from our Paris food tour. We’ve not done a food tour anywhere before but this will not be the last one. Terrific fun!
Bread chandelier, Poilâne Bakery, St. Germaine. This place has an amazing history. I have posted a link at the bottom of the page.

Bread chandelier, Poilâne Bakery, St. Germaine. This place has an amazing history. I have posted a link at the bottom of the page.

Poilâne again. A beautiful and tasty product,.

Poilâne again. A beautiful and tasty product,

These are chocolates, not marbles, at the very high end chocolatier, Patrick Roger, I think 3-4 Euros per piece. Luckily our food tour included some product tastes.

These are chocolates, not marbles, at the very high-end chocolatier, Patrick Roger, I think 3-4 Euros per piece. Luckily our food tour included some product tastes.

Tiger prawns. Note the lemon included for perspective. Small lemon, but still!

Tiger prawns. Note the lemon included for perspective. Small lemon, but still!

 

Location of our post food tour feast. It means "the last drop."

Location of our post food tour feast. It means “the last drop.”

As I mentioned at the start, familiarity with a location just adds to the enjoyment. Our first two trips were focused on the classic must-sees (see entries about our Christmas trip here and here, and about our March trip).  This time we wandered in diverse and historic neighborhoods, sought out places locals eat lunch, visited the Museum of London (well-curated and much patronized by school groups) and the Imperial War Museum (lightly attended, highly recommended), saw a show (“The Book of Mormon,” which was hilarious), went to the Handel & Hendrix in London exhibit, shopped, and took a ride on an historic steam railroad thanks to out friends from the East Midlands, Nigel and Carol. This third trip only whetted our appetite for more. London, we will be back. But maybe not for awhile…
The story of Poilâne, from an article in The New Yorker.  

Ethnic food

4 May
4 May 2016. Italian food is fabulous: fresh ingredients, few preservatives, simple flavors, regional specialties, lots of vegetables, fish, olive oil. And wine.
In London, we indulged in ABI: Anything But Italian. Our “ethnic” eating included
  • Sunday Roast at a London pub complete with Yorkshire Pudding and goose fat roast potatoes (a vegetarian’s nightmare)
  • Mexican street food at Wahaca which was noisy, but fun for lunch
  • An incredible hamburger at a brasserie in London, with chips of course
  • Indian City;  Great food but noisy. What is with British restaurants being noisy?
  • Pad Thai and calamari at Busaba Thai (also noisy, BTW)
  • Steak & Ale pie at a 300-year-old pub in Windsor with an ancient fireplace and low clearance (mind your head!)
    My Sunday roast for lunch. Note the enormous and perfect Yorkshire Pudding.

    My Sunday roast for lunch. Note the enormous and perfect Yorkshire Pudding.

    Cute little pub in Windsor., the Horse and Groom. First licensee on the site was in 1719.

    Cute little pub in Windsor, the Horse and Groom. The first licensee on the site was in 1719. The door was clearly made for short people. 

We wrapped up this trip in Dijon. No light cuisine there! For lunch in Beaune we enjoyed a very traditional Burgundy meal during a wine tour day. Boeuf Bourguignon for me and lapin for Ric. Ouefs en Meurette for an entreè were excellent! I may like lardons even better than pancetta.
Just writing this has me pondering the meaning of “ethnic food.” Is it “ethnic” when you eat something in one country not native to your own? Is a hamburger ethnic cuisine if you eat it in France? How about French fries? If an Indian eats tandoori in London, is it “ethnic?” I might consider eating an Italian meal in Portland “ethnic” dining, but I certainly don’t consider Italian food in Italy “ethnic.” Unless, of course, you are eating Ligurian food in Abbruzzo or bistecca Fiorentino in the Alto Adige.
Scallop with roe (or coral) included. I had no idea they were sold this way, but leave it to the French to use every edible part. The roe is supposed to be delicious!

Scallop with roe (or coral) included. I had no idea they were sold this way, but leave it to the French to use every edible part. The roe is supposed to be delicious! From out food tour in Paris, which was very educational.

A Bresse chicken is the most expensive chicken in the world, so we are told. It has appellation d'origine contrôlée status,. We did not eat any. Retail price, uncooked, about $25/pound.

A Bresse chicken is the most expensive chicken in the world, so we are told. It has appellation d’origine contrôlée status. We did not eat any. Retail price, uncooked, about $25/pound.

Our final night in Dijon, as we wandered around looking for a light supper (having gorged at lunch), nothing really looked good. It all seemed the same: hearty Burgundian cuisine and burgers. I turned to Ric and said, “If we were in Italy we wouldn’t have a problem picking a place to eat. They may all have the same menus but we like everything on the menu.” Yup, Italy has the best overall food in Europe. Italy just doesn’t have much “ethnic,” that is, non-Italian. 
Tuesday we returned to the land of lighter cuisine and inexpensive wine. I think I need a salad.

 

Not the usual travel photos

21 Apr
21 April 2016. We are once again traveling with stops in Milano, Paris, London, and Dijon. Rather than give you a rundown on the sights we’ve seen, I thought I’d share some of our more unusual photos. We have a lot of fun going to less-known neighborhoods and sights, taking walks where mostly locals walk, and looking at even famous sites with a fresh perspective.
Please click on any photo for a better view and complete caption. 

 

Trains, buses, and the Tube

4 Jan
It’s the little stories, observations, and encounters along-the-way that we remember far longer than we recall the stats we learn during a museum tour or even recall in our mind’s eye the finest art in a cathedral. That is certainly the case with our trip to Paris, London, and Switzerland during the Christmas season.
Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

Love the double deckers. Sitting up front on top gives one an impressive view.

I have been trying to think of a way to blog about this trip. You’ve seen plenty of pictures of Christmas lights in Roma, Milano, and Paris (plus blogger John Henderson did a far better job than I ever could about Roma). A litany of the sites we saw is just another travelogue.
For the next few posts, I will share some vignettes, stories, and observations from our 4-countries-in-2-weeks trip. First up, a bit about transportation differences.
London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

London Transportation Museum: Old-style bus.

Italian trains and buses are anything but quiet. Bangladeshi housekeepers call their mamas in the old country on the super-affordable plan from TIM. Single travelers call everyone in their contact list (Sono in treno! Sono sul autobus!) to inform them of their transit woes. Families en route to their holiday travel with bags of food to sustain them and everyone is chatting ALL THE TIME. Ric’s mom came from the school of never let a moment pass in silence, but they would put her to shame. Italians are social creatures and constantly in touch. What they did before cell phones I cannot imagine, although personal conversation is still a strong suit. Texting happens, sure, but talking is far more prevalent. Who has so much to say? Ric and I can sit for an hour without speaking a word. We call it “companionable silence,” well-developed in 31 years.
Bernina Express . Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

Bernina Express. Just threw this one in as a beauty shot.

In Paris, if you talk too loud on the bus or Metro you get the stink eye from the French. Conversations are sotto voce and cell phones are not used except to text, peruse Facebook, or other non-intrusive activity. How pleasant it is! The Swiss are similarly low-key, reserved, and, well, Swiss.
In London, we found people chatting a bit more, but in both Paris and London we saw a lot of people reading on the Tube, Metro or bus. Reading actual books, not on devices. One seldom sees a book pulled out on an Italian bus and it would be impossible to do on the Rome Metro since you are always cheek-by-jowl with scarcely room to change your mind. You cannot read on a Roman bus because most of them lack shock-absorbers and the kidney-pounding you take going over cobblestones makes it impossible to focus on a book.
The Metro in Rome is a dog pile. People are in constant motion. There is no queue. People can barely descend from the train before would-be riders crush forward. I have been pushed aside by young people and middle-aged men with no consideration for my gender, age, or the fact I might be dragging luggage. It is a free-for-all. The stations are filthy, the trash bins overflowing, and of course, the great tradition of graffiti covers trains as well as walls.
London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

London Tube station. Excellent signage, lighting, acoustics. Far from Rome.

Ah, London and Paris, with your orderly queues, updated stations, and avoidance of unnecessary conversation! You can actually hear the announcements in a British or French tube station. The Tube stations in London are spotless, with no graffiti at least where we traveled. Even the older stations are well-maintained. I love the Parisian Metro stations that have the glass dividers that keep people from falling into the tracks and define the exit and entry points. Several Parisian men actually offered me their seats and no one pushed past me as though I were invisible. In London, we were able to sit down on the Tube most trips, thanks to a preponderance of trains and well-designed cars. Double-decker buses are, by the way, a delightful way to tour the city. I love how everyone is disciplined enough to get on at the front and off in the middle. Not quite that way in Roma…
Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

Bernina Express interior. Lovely, quiet, comfy. Coffee cost us €4.50 each, however. On Trenitalia you get one free.

The Swiss train stations are oases of calm in a calm country. Well-signed, immaculate, orderly, no pushing or shoving (except by foreigners who carry their own habits along). The trains may not be as posh as the Frecciarossa or Italo Treno, but they are comfortable. With no discounting and no complimentary wine (sniff!), the Swiss railroad must be making some serious francs.
Italy, we love you! We love your trains and your warm-hearted people. We love not needing a car to travel all over the city, country, and continent. You do coffee better than anywhere we’ve lived or traveled, and we miss your food when we are out-of-the-country, but you could be just a smidge quieter and stand in line now-and-then.
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