Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oi Oi Paris: Jour 3

Alice and I were kind of exhausted from the first two days of non-stop sightseeing, so we got a slower start on Wednesday and walked through the outdoor farmers' market near her neighborhood. The market is huge, and they not only sell fruit and vegetables, but also meat, whole fish, kids' toys, shoes, clothes, and cheese. The vendors will call out what they're selling and the price, to try to entice you to stop and buy something. All the produce looked so delicious, so we stopped at a stand and I used my 10 words of French to ask for two figs - these figs were the size of peaches, with dark pink flesh inside, and Alice and I each bit into one and ate it as we walked back through the market. So delish.

We then walked to Les Invalides, which contains the Musee de l'Armee with all the military history, armor, swords, guns, cannons, etc., of France. Man, France has really fought in a lot of wars. The old armor was pretty cool at first, and some of the pistols and muskets are beautifully ornate, but after a while it is just tiring to read about military conflicts.

The recognizable golden dome of les Invalides.

Some beautiful pistols from back in the day.
My favorite part of les Invalides was Napoleon's tomb. It's in this circular room with maybe 6 different offshoots holding other people's tombs, and at the back there's this massive altar, accented with lots of gold, several stories high. But the real attraction is the tomb itself, a massive porphyry tomb recessed into the ground, surrounded by a ring of giant female statues. It was pretty incredible. You could probably fit 50 Napoleons into this thing.
Looking down at Napoleon's tomb from the upper floor. There was also a huge dome above it.

Me standing behind the tomb. It really is that giant.
That night we decided to stay in and cook dinner for Alice's husband Kevin, who was at work every day while we played. We stopped at this supermarket which is part of a huge department store - it has a huge yogurt section and tons of cheese as well. Alice picked out a soft cheese for us to eat, which I proceeded to drop on the floor in a liquidy splatter, in the crowded lines behind the register. Ugh. I got a replacement and it was delicious on a baguette. Apparently there are many different kinds of baguette in France as well, and people really do walk around with baguettes all the time. Awesome.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Oi Oi Paris: Jour 2

View from Trocadero
Alice was basically my city-wandering buddy all week, and she was a fabulous tour guide. On my second full day, we picked up pastries at the corner patisserie and walked to Trocadero, where you get a great view of the Eiffel Tower past some fountains with interesting horse-head sculptures. There are tons of tourists in this area, also made obvious by the numerous guys trying to sell you mini-replicas of the Eiffel Tower for 1 Euro. I have no idea how these guys sell enough trinkets to make a living, since nobody seems to buy any.

Our next stop was Arc de Triomphe, which is in the middle of this crazy traffic circle, and was recommended to me by Mike Cullinan himself as a good thing to climb up in Paris, but I did not anticipate that the city-wide strike would extend to monuments as well. So alas, we couldn't climb it. It was still pretty awesome though - apparently it was commissioned by Napoleon to honor the soldiers that fought in his various wars.

trying to look nonchalant as if some paparazzi took this photo, not myself
After that, we walked up the Champs-Elysees, which is a really wide street with lots of big shops lining it, somewhat similar to Michigan Avenue in Chicago. It was kind of touristy but still pretty fun. There are a lot of gorgeous, stylish women in Paris, so it's great for people-watching as well as window-shopping. We walked all the way to the Madeleine Church, which has 52 gigantic columns going all the way around. The inside is sprinkled with columns as well, along with a big mosaic of Jesus and his posse at the back, with palm trees (which seemed out of place).

The Madeleine - church devoted to Mary Magdalene
Conveniently near the Madeleine was Laduree, one of Alice's favorite macaron shops, and one of the two most prominent ones in Paris. We planned to do a taste test - both to find out which shop made better macarons, and also which macaron flavors we liked the best. This is the kind of test that I like to take.

The shop is adorable and small, and sells primarily macarons. We picked some interesting flavors like citron, petales de rose, cassis violette, and fruits rouges. The texture was perfect - crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. YUM.

our bag of sweet treats
I also had my first experience with the automatic, self-washing, free public toilet of Paris. You press a button and the door opens. You press another button inside and a lady's voice says something to you in French as the door closes. You do your thing, and pick a button for a big or small flush. Instead of seeing the flush, you just hear the French voice again. Hmm. Going over to the sink, you hold out your hand and soap magically drops into it, and then water comes out so you'd better scrub! You figure you've done all you can, and press a button to make the door open. Then you have to press the button on the outside before anyone else goes in, so it will automatically flush and wash itself before the next person. Weird!
Next we sought out a craft store that I'd heard of called La Drogerie, which was truly worth the time to find it. It was incredible - jars full of beads in every color imaginable, a rainbow of yarn hanks, an incredible collection of gorgeous ribbons, Liberty fabric fat quarters, and a huge selection of quirky buttons. I could have spent all my money in there, for reals.
oh, the ribbon!
On our way home we walked past Notre Dame, which is such a gorgeous cathedral with crazy gargoyles and really intricate architecture. I'm sure you can find a picture of it online, but the stuff that really intrigues me is the little details, like these four king-like guys near the door, each with his own expression, tall and skinny. Who are they?
what is the first guy standing on?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Eurotrip 2010: Florence and Venice

Sorry I have not been updating the blog recently but I just now feel like I have really recovered from the whirlwind pace of the trip. I will try and post about the rest of the trip over the next few days.

After Thor presented his work at CIRP on Monday he hopped a train for Florence in the morning. we spent the train trip seated next to a couple who alternated between yelling at someone on the speaker phone in some foreign language that i did not recognize (i.e. Not Italian) and blasting what sounded like polish folk music on their cell phone. It turns out that loudly playing music in public on your cell phone is a very popular thing to do in Europe. I don't know how many preteen girls I saw blasting Miley Cyrus on the speaker of their cell phones. Anyway when we arrived in Florence we checked into our hotel room which was across from the Duomo.

Thor in front of the Duomo in Florence

The inside of the Duomo.
The church was not open yet but the dome was so we decided to climb it.

Thor climbing through the narrow passages of the dome.
It was a long tough climb but it was well worth it.

Me at the top of the Duomo overlooking Florence.
After we got down from the dome we decided to walk around the city a bit. We stopped by the Ponte Vecchio which is a medieval bridge over the Arno river in Florence which is filled with shops.

Me in front of the Ponte Vecchio.
Then we stopped by the Uffizi museum where he had 1pm reservations. By making reservations in advance we were able to skip two hour line and get directly into the museum. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures in the museum.
The Uffizi.
Me from the porch of the Uffizi looking at the Duomo.
After the Uffizi we headed up to the Galleria dell' Accademia home of the David. The David turned out to be much bigger and more impressive than I thought it would be. Again we were not allowed to take pictures but Thor has seemed to prefect the art of taking sneak shots at museums.
Thor's stealth shot of the David.
After dinner and a few bottles of wine we headed up to the Piazza de Michelangelo which has an amazing view of Florence.  The piazza is also home to the third of the three Davids in Florence (the real one in the Galleria dell' Accademia plus the replicas at the David's original home outside the Uffizi and in the Piazza de Michelangelo).  Thus we were able to complete our David trifecta.
View of Florence from the Piazza de Michelangelo.
After we made it down from the piazza we had desert and a few more bottles of wine. Then we walked past a bar called the red garter and decided to go in. The bar seemed to be playing exclusively American top 40 music but there were a lot of people dancing so we decided to go in. I don't know if there were any actual Italian people there since we spent most of the time chatting up two cute German girls but I had a lot of fun anyway. We did however drink much more than we should of given that we had to get up early and rent a car to drive to Venice early in the morning.

Thanks to our late night out in Florence I was not doing well by the time we got to car rental agency on Wednesday morning. Fortunately everything went smoothly with the car rental and we hit the road over the Tuscan hills to Venice. Climbing the hills outside Florence was really very beautiful.
Thor in the hills of Tuscany.
We arrived in Venice in the early afternoon, parked the car and took a water bus into the city.
View of Venice from the water bus.
Venice is truly a unique and beautiful city with canals for streets and water everywhere.
One of the many canals in Venice.
First we stopped by the Piazza di San Marco and took a look at Saint Mark’s basicalla.
Thor in the Piazza di San Marco.
I tried to convince Thor to climb the clock tower but he was having none of it until we realized that it had an elevator which satisfied my desire to see the city from high up and his desire not to climb stairs.
View from the clock tower of the Piazza di San Marco.
View of Venice from the clock tower.
View of the entrance to the Grand Canal.
We spent most of the rest of the day and night walking around the city getting lost in the narrow alleys and admiring the canals.
Thor from the Ponte di Rialto

Flooding outside Saint Mark's Basicalla as the tide came in.

The canals by night.
In the morning we took another water bus out of the city and hit the road for Austria.
View from the water bus as we left Venice.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Oi Oi Paris: Jour 1

Okay, I don't really speak any French, but I remember a little from the half semester I took in 6th grade. Anyway, I arrived yesterday afternoon after a 12-hour journey from Boston, including two planes and two trains, before arriving at the apartment of my friend Alice and her husband Kevin in the 15th arrondisment of Paris. Five-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower!

Today, after eating a delicious almond/chocolate pastry, we walked to the Louvre and spent five hours seeing as much as we could - there are a ton of awesome things there. My favorite was Napoleon's apartments - crazy awesome. Apparently the Louvre was once like a giant mansion for Louis XIV until he thought it was too small. Woo hoo, can't wait to see Versailles!

I also really liked the mummies and their multi-layered coffins. Apparently it was really important to them to make sure their bodies didn't decay, and there's a whole Book of Death with all the spells they had to cast, with the help of amulets, on the mummy to make sure they came back in the afterlife. The also mummified their cats, dogs, fish (!), birds, and an alligator??

We also saw some amazing paintings, but all the captions were in French, so we sometimes had to guess what they were about. This one is called the Wedding Feast, and we weren't quite sure who the bride and groom were, but only two people in the whole painting are looking straight at you. I love how much is going on in this painting.

I have so many more awesome photos from the Louvre, but zero energy to write about them after having walked all over Paris all day. One thing I love is that, even when you're not in a museum, all the buildings in the city are just beautiful themselves! Random statues and gold things everywhere! This is Pont George V:

Tomorrow there is a strike so the trains are all not running, so we will be in for some more walking! It's okay, it burns of all the pan de chocolat that I plan to eat.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Eehern Road Trip: Parts 2 1/2 and 3 - Utah and Arizona

Utah, really not a fan.

I'm not sure they even wanted me there in the first place. The first hotel we tried was booked. The second hotel was also booked. Finally, the third hotel had rooms and we were finally able to go to sleep.

The next morning I tried going online with hotel wifi. A short while later I got a virus and my internet was completely pwnd. This wasn't a seedy hotel or anything, it was actually a pretty nice La Quinta. Officially, this is the reason why I couldn't blog pseudo-realtime, although we all know I probably wouldn't have anyways. Also, this meant I couldn't get photos from John's camera. Honestly though, I wasn't too concerned, since I was crashing with John in SD after Phoenix, so I could get the photos later and deal with the virus. Until then, I was basically cut off from internet, but I was fine with that. Besides, I couldn't risk the virus stealing the password to our LMP blog, and making up stories about me.

It also started storming so a bunch of flights were getting delayed. John audible'd and booked a new flight online, literally an hour before takeoff as we were driving to the airport. All on his phone. Impressive.

On the way back from the airport, a tiny rock hit my windshield about 2" from the left edge. It barely made a sound, but immediately cracked to the edge, and then propagated the other direction to form about an 8" crack.
Dumb crack
It turns out I was close to an Auto Glass and Body shop. Really close. It was literally on the next block .. 

Anyways, I stopped and asked for advice. It turns out they didn't actually do glass on site, so the receptionist gave me a phone number to call, which led to a guy in Minnesota. Unfortunately, they couldn't repair cracks larger than dollar bill lengths, so that meant I needed a full windshield replacement. They needed a day to order the windshield, and a second day to install it. Catherine was arriving that next morning, and we were heading out of Salt Lake immediately, so I really just wanted some sort of a quick fix to get by for now. 

I found another Auto Glass shop with Goog411. They also said the crack was hopeless to repair, but that they could probably stop the crack from growing by filling the ends. It had to be off the books, since they couldn't warranty it, so the guy told me he'd do it for free and I could tip him if I wanted to.

The guy kind of looked like Derek Jeter.

When he finished, it actually looked pretty decent, so I gave him everything in my wallet, which was $31.

Anyways, that was pretty much Day 8. I was a little bummed with the hotel, the virus, the weather, and the crack, but I was still pretty happy to have averted disaster and that the trip was still on.

On Day 9, I picked up Catherine.

First we went to get brunch in Provo at a place Aaron suggested, Cafe Rio. It's a Mexican restaurant, and surprisingly it was really good. Aaron had also suggested the Nauvoo Cafe in Salt Lake, which was extremely tasty. They had Coke-marinated meat in one of the specialty sandwiches, which was really good. But I'm not actually sure Coke-marinated foods are Mormon-approved.

Anyways, Cafe Rio was also really good food. Mexican food. In Utah. So "half and hour" for lunch ended up stretching closer to an hour. But it was worth it.

Next, Arches. We couldn't quite decide whether we wanted quantity or quality, so we talked with the ranger. For quantity, we could go see North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch, which were all close together, but for quality, we had to see delicate arch, which required a couple mile hike in. We decided to compromise and do both.

First, quantity:
Turret Arch
Well to be honest, I thought the arches were kind of lame. The other rock formations were a lot more interesting:
Maneki Neko (aka Chinese lucky cat)
Creepy Michelin man and friend
Next stop, delicate arch. On the hike up we saw some mini-arches:
The hike took us right up to Delicate Arch, which was actually a pretty sweet arch. It's right at the edge of a cliff, and really makes you wonder how in the world it got there.
Delicate Arch
Once we returned, we were pretty much exhausted. It is hot in Utah.

Originally the plan was to drive all the way to Bryce and camp there, but we made it halfway and it was already getting dark. We stopped at a gas station to get fuel, and asked the attendant about camping options nearby. Apparently it was bow-hunting season, which meant all the campsites were probably full. She also told us all the local motels were infested with bed bugs, except for the Super 8 next door, which she used to work at. We gave it a once over. Then we went to the next big city on the map.

We found a nice hotel, and were able to hold off porta-potties for one additional night. That was Day 9.

Day 10 started off poorly.
Utah state trooper
I got busted along a stretch of straight highway at about 8a in the morning. There was absolutely nobody on the road and the roads were totally straight, although over rolling hills. The patrolman came over the hill from the opposite direction .. game over.

The cop was actually surprisingly polite. We think he was Mormon. He told me that they actually pull anyone going +5 over the speed limit. So much for my +9 theory. 

To be quite honest, on the rest of the way to Bryce we saw a ton of camouflaged cops in pickup trucks pulling guys over. So chances are I probably would have been busted there anyways if I wasn't already panicked and driving the speed limit.

Anyways, Bryce. Bryce was cool.
Unique Bryce rock formations
More awesome rock formations
I got a little obsessed about wanting to touch the rock.
Hand modeling
When Catherine was growing up, her parents actually told here they found her out of a garbage can. Come to think of it, I think my parents might have told me that same story too. Maybe it's a Chinese thing. Anyways, my theory is that she came from this hole in the wall. 
Pretty good fit
And this is where Catherine used to play as a kid.
Random tree in the canyon
Anyways, I really liked Bryce. Aaron told us to see Cedar Breaks next, so we complied. In fact, everything Aaron told us was really good advice. Quite possibly, his suggestions were the only good parts of Utah. Anyways, I'm a firm believer of not backtracking, and by going through Cedar Breaks, we were able to enter Zion from the west, and exit it from the east.

On the way to Cedar Breaks, we saw a biker and thought of AJ. There were actually signs warning of a bike race going on.
This guy was either at the very front or the very end
Once we got to Cedar Breaks, it was a nice place to stop and picnic for lunch.
Cedar Breaks
About this point, Catherine decided that I wasn't listening to GPS Samantha. Supposedly it's well documented that men don't actually respond to women giving directions (or orders or any kind). It has something to do with evolution. So GPS Samantha changed to GPS Jack. Little Jack was no more effective than Samantha, so we concluded my filter was impartial to all backseat drivers.

Next we went to Zion. The Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce make up the Grand Staircase, since the top of one is the bottom of the next. Zion is in the middle, but I really wasn't too impressed. The rock formations looked pretty normal, and the murky river wasn't too attractive. Zion really has nothing going for it, except for its water, which tastes really good.
Also, Zion kind of screwed us too. And yes, Zion is still in Utah. We went to our campsite, setup our tent, and as we were about to head out to hike, the rangers came around and told us they had accidentally sent us to the wrong site. We ended up having to move our tent over to a new smaller campsite with a giant ant hill. Fortunately, it was actually closer to the bathroom, which had running water and flush toilets. So it turns out Catherine got to avoid porta-potties for the entire trip. Success.

Another cool attraction of Zion, is the moon coming over the top of this peak called the Watchman. We were lucky and it was pretty close to a full moon when we were in Zion.
Watchman moonrise
Sunrise was kind of nice too. Although, I was actually asleep. Fortunately Catherine took pictures.
When I finally got up, we headed out. Zion was the last stop in Utah, and I've never been more happy to leave a state in my entire life.

Oh yeah, I hit a bird at some point in Utah too, I felt really bad. I can't remember, but I'm pretty sure it was actually on this stretch out of Utah. The guy flew towards my windshield, hesitated, and then tried to double back. He didn't make it. Yet another reason you should never backtrack if you can avoid it. 

Anyways, it was nice to be out of Utah, and on our way to the Grand Canyon. North Rim was the first stop.

Catherine wanted to take pictures of wildflowers. We took a picture of wildflower pictures, so we could identify them.
Picture of wildflower pictures
The Grand Canyon looked pretty cool, especially from the North Rim since it was higher than the South.
North Rim
Group picture.
Vubag West
It turns out, the Grand Canyon still looks about the same, even if you drive an hour to a different part of the park and take another picture.
North Rim again
Catherine got a little obsessed about taking pictures through my sunglasses.
The goal was to try to get Canyons in both the background and the reflection.
More sunglasses
One thing North Rim really got right was bench placement. A lot of the other national parks/monuments had benches where you couldn't really see anything.
North Rim bench placement
Catherine also got some of her own flower pics. I can't remember the name of this one, but you can cross-reference it yourself with the photograph above.
Flower pic
There was this neat hike on the Cliff Springs Trail which took you alongside the cliff.
Cool undercut
The view at the end was pretty sweet.
Canyon view
It was getting kind of late, but it was worth it. Definitely.

Our next stop was South Rim. If we could go directly across the canyon, it would only be 10-12 mi. Instead, the only way to get there was all the way around this horrible 58 mi loop.
North Rim, South Rim
And the view from South Rim was ... the same.
South Rim
But we got it checked off the list. And got to see it at sunset. So that was nice and completed the national parks portion of the trip.
Leaving Grand Canyon
The rest of the night was spent driving to Phoenix, which Catherine had warned would be "literally, hot as hell". And that was an understatement. We got in around 11p, but it was still completely miserable. And humid. Luckily, everywhere is air conditioned, so as long as you stayed indoors you were fine. We went to an In n Out for dinner, and that was the end of Day 11.

By 8a on Day 12, it was already unbearably warm, so I packed up and left for CA. A couple fruit and border inspections later, I was pretty much home again.