Day 61: Big day in Paris

Once again we took the bus tour around the city, this time travelling to the furtherest areas of Paris. Naturally, as we are in Paris, we grabbed chocolate croissants for breakfast on our way to the tour bus. We saw the industrial district along the Seine, which includes a four-part building where each part is shaped like an open book. This building is the library of Paris and it houses a massive collection of books and rooms for public use (only the first two floors) as well as areas designated solely to special research. In addition to the millions of books in the library, there is even an original Gutenberg Bible. In between the buildings is a garden full of rare plants.

The bus tour also took us up to the older part of Paris full of cabarets and solely dedicated to pleasure after the war. Along this stretch is the infamous Moulin Rouge with its red windmill, which locals told us is still the best cabaret in town. Ironically, the cabarets are at the bottom of the hill that rises to hold the beautiful Sacre Coure basilica-both monuments are in the fun Montmartre neighborhood. The Basilica of Sacre Coure is both beautiful and surprisingly large. We have both seen quite a few churches on this trip but we also both agree that it was especially beautiful, as was the view of Paris from Montmartre. The story of Sacre Coure is also very interesting (hopefully I will have time to tell it later).

Next we headed to an entirely different area of Paris that includes St. Genevieve church, the University, and the Pantheon. We accidentally stubbled into the church of St. Genevieve, who is the patron saint of Paris, is a lovely example of the gothic French architecture. Right up the street is the massive columns and dome of the Pantheon. The architect was inspired by Greek architecture and thus designed a white building with tall columns, a big dome, and open halls. In the Pantheon we saw hommages to the French saints, the Revolution, and famous Frenchman and women. Those entombed in the massive crypt include: Voltaire, Marie Currie, French freedom fighters, a French slave (who fought slavery), and Rousseau. Even the architect lays in the Pantheon. As morbid as it seems, the Pantheon was one of my favorite places we have been in Paris.

Instead of taking the bus, we did the typical French thing and walked along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. It was a beautiful walk that provided us with incredible views of different parts of the city. In the baking sun we saw the language institute, which houses the body that decides what is and is not French, a palace, Hotel DeVille, Isle de la Cité, Isle de Sant Louis, and the beach. Each August the French government builds a beach along the Seine for those Parisians who cannot escape the city. They have subsidized music, ice cream, playgrounds for kids, big chairs for adults, and other things. Even though it was late in the evening, the beach was packed with locals sunbathing and playing in the sand.

We made it to the Eiffel Tower just as the sun began to set and surprisingly (and with great amounts of luck) we did not have to wait too long in line. We climbed to the first floor as the sun turned the entire city red. By the time we crawled to the second floor (its a greater distance than it looks), much of the city was painted blue, except for the Seine and the building directly across from the Eiffel Tower, which glowed in pinks and reds. We decided to wait on the second floor to see the Tower sparkle for the first time that night. Starting at 10pm and ending at 1am, the Eiffel Tower sparkles for five minutes on the hour, every hour. From where we sat, we were able to see the entire time light up, while the city was still lit up from the setting sun-the beauty of the scene is unimaginable and my pictures do not do it justice. From the second floor we had to take an elevator up to the very top. As the last dregs of sunlight lit up the city, we ate dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to eat at the very ritzy hotel but rather dined on seasoned noodles- this seemed appropriate considering it was the staple of diet in Europe. We stayed at the top to see the Tower sparkle once more (it wasn’t quite as exciting when you can’t see it all). Because of the lines and the long climb down, we had to literally run across the street to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower light up once more. Saving the absence of Ernest Hemingway, midnight in Paris was unbelievably awesome (SEE THE MOVIE). Furthermore, since it took us nearly an hour to find the metro, we decided to grab Nutella crepes and wait for the Tower to sparkle one last time. We ended our night eating crepes under a sparkling Eiffel Tower- it was one of our best days yet.


Day 60: Paris Round 2

We went back to Concord and walked from the obelisk to the Arc de Triomphe, where we climbed to the top to see the entire city. Not only is the Arc inspiring, but the view is incredible. We also saw the tomb of the unknown soldier and the hommages to the others who have fought for France.

We then took an open top bus tour around the city- so far it has been a great way to see different parts of the city as well as a way to get from place to place. Not to mention the weather is gorgeous, its warm and sunny everyday!

We took the bus to the Museé de l’Armeé and the Hótel National des Invalides. Inside the grand gates stands a large dome, which houses the tomb of Napoleon I as well as his son, the King of Rome. Napoleon began Invalides as a place to live for the veterans of the country. It has two chapels (one for the veterans and one for the emperor), extensive gardens, tombs of important Frenchman, and a museum full of arms and armor from French history. We saw the tombs, the beautiful chapel, and the fascinating museum, which even has Turkish and Oriental armor, as it was once a gift to the kings of France.

Our next stop was Notre Dame. Notre Dame de Paris was first built around 1163, but didn’t obtain its current form until the 19th century. It is considered the greatest example of the French Gothic style and stands as a testament to France’s history. It was a beloved Catholic church, then desecrated during the Revolution, brought back to fame by Victor Hugo’s novel, restored, cleaned, and once again became one of the most beloved churches in the world.  I fully understand the hype. Not only is it incredible beautiful (as well as a little frightening) but the history of the church is fascinating. Unfortunately, we did not get to go up into the towers, but that is definitely something I would like to see, especially since they are renovating the cathedral and adding bells. Annie and I both lit candles for family; I lit candles with my grandparents and parents in mind (looking at you, Mom).

National Archeology thing next to Notre Dame (more information later).

One of our favorite stops of the day: Museé du Louvre. To get there we had to walk through the stunning Tuileries Garden, which ran adjacent to a little carnival, and through the mini Arc de Triomphe to the Louvre itself. We went in through the bottom by the inverted pyramid and skipped any and all lines. However, we were not so lucky once inside the museum. Both of us were astounded by the sheer size of the former palace/royal home/fortress/most visited art museum in the world. In the basement we saw the original remmenants of the fortress built in the late 12th century and proceeded directly upstairs to the Mona Lisa. There was a massive crowd directly in front of the painting but we were able to get a good look; although smaller than expected, the painting is also much more beautiful in person. We also made sure to see other famous works, such as: Vermeer, Van Eyck, The Venus de Milo,  Winged Victory statue, many of the Egyptian antiquities, Titian, Michelangelo, as well as many others. We were unexpectedly overwhelmed by the amount of art and the size of the palace, but loved it nonetheless. Personally, I find the building itself, including the glass pyramids (which made me think of nothing but the Da Vinci Code), the most beautiful part.

We’ve walked the classic Av. de Champs Elyseés several times now. It is a bustling and classy area that reminds me of Fifth Avenue in New York. Its a shame our budget doesn’t account for the incredible shopping and restaurants along the avenue. After the Louvre, we walked back through the gardens and Champs Elyseés to see the sun set by the Eiffel tower. We climbed the Arc de Triomphe once again and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city, including the Eiffel tower.

Throughout the day we tried classic French foods, such as Nutella crepes and hotdogs in a baquet bun with frommage (cheese). We enjoyed both immensely!

Day 59: Paris- Tours and Museums

Because we are totally exhausted and have more touring to do early tomorrow, here is just a brief rundown of my first day in Paris!

We are couch surfing with a really nice man named Cyrill while his two little boys are on vacation with their mom. We have a whole room to ourselves in his gorgeous, upperclass apartment. Its incredible.

Upon taking the metro into Concord, which houses the Egyptian obelisk (the oldest monument in Paris), we bought a museum pass and headed into the Museé d’Orsay to see the works of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Courbet, Pissarro (whom we both loved), Degas, Cézanne, and Renoir (one of my favorites). We both loved the museum and even headed over to the Museé National de l’Orangerie, a tribute to the later works of Monet, including Les Nymphéas. The museum boasts of a circular room where the walls are covered in a cycle of Monet’s paintings of the lilies- these paintings were featured in the movie Midnight in Paris!

We spent the afternoon and evening taking a biking tour of the entire city. We even stopped off for some of the famous Berthillon ice cream. Because the family-operated company only uses natural ingredients, the ice cream can only be reproduced on the Isle of Sant Louis, where the shop is located and the ice cream is made daily. It is reputed to be the best ice cream in all of France, which I believe wholeheartedly. We biked through the Latin Quarter as well as the other parts of the city that include all the major monuments and part of the Tulleries gardens. We also went over several bridges covered in padlocks, mostly from lovers who lock their love and then throw away the key.

As part of the bike tour we spent an hour going down the Seine river in an open top boat while the sun set. We were able to see the sun set behind the Eiffel tower, watch it light up, and then watch it sparkle for 5 minutes at 10pm. It was incredibly beautiful. Annie and I are both in love with the city and cannot wait to see more!

Day 45: Tarragona and the Roman Ruins

Tarragona is both the southernmost province in Catalunya as well as the capital city of the province. The city was founded before Roman times, during which it was known as Tarraco. Although it is now just a small, quiet city, Tarraco was a large city with many important functions and sites. Augustus wintered there after his Cantabrian campaign and Livy mentions the port (nerd moment: I read about this last year in Livy’s History of Rome!). The town became a Roman colony under Julius Caesar and is considered the most important Roman colonies in Spain and one of the best preserved parts of the Roman empire. Tarragona has another claim to fame as well: the beaches. We visited the main beach as well as a smaller local cove and discovered soft sand and crystal clear water, without the crowd and mess of Barcelona (and they are all natural as well).

Much of the old Roman town is literally built into the modern city (as well as some of the medieval monuments). Old Roman walls act as the sides of houses, restaurants, buildings, and pieces of the old buildings can be seen just lying on the side of the road. However, there are some main attractions. We saw the giant Roman amphitheater, the walls and the gates, the citadel, the Cathedral (built in the 12th century on the site of a Roman temple and a Moorish mosque), as well as the famous circus. The structure of the circus is very well preserved and holds over 20,000 spectators!

Tarragona was a quiet city with delicious food (best gelato in Spain), amazing sights, and the most incredible beaches. We had a wonderful time getting out of the big city and into the big open squares full of old people and children!

Today we leave for Girona, where we fly out of at 5am tomorrow for PARIS!!!

Day 45: Montserrat!

I am so behind in posts (due to the amount of things we have been seeing) but I am slowly catching up!

In English, “Montserrat” roughly translates to “jagged rock.” The mountain is amount an hour and a half northwest of Barcelona by train and we took a cable car half-way up the mountain to the site of the monastery. The views were spectacular. Once again, Annie and I appreciated the trees, cool air, and water- especially after being in the city for so long! Montseerat is well known as the site of the Benedictine Abbey, Santa Maria de Monserrat, which hosts the Virgin of Monserrat, sanctuary and which is identified by some with the location of the Holy Grail in Arthurian myth. There is also a statue of the Black Madonna that is rumored to have been carved in Jerusalem during the very beginnings of the Church. The monastery and basilica are reputed to be stunning, but unfortunately, we never made it there. Instead we spend several hours hiking among the harsh peaks- almost making it to the top. We saw several shrines, including an entire building dedicated to Sant Joan (Saint John), as well as the Holy Grotto. The history of the Holy Grotto  began in 880 when a small group of shepherd children saw a bright light descending from the sky in the Montserrat mountains. In the same moment the children heard angels singing and the music filled their hearts with a radiant joy. The children’s parents as well as a local vicar experienced this same phenomena in the same cave on the mountain. When religious elders later when to inspect the cave, they found na image of the Virgin Mary. This area has been marked by the Holy Grotto and is now a pilgrimage site.

We also saw the hermitages where former abbeys went to live when they get old- they were essentially caves with pools of water where the old monks went to die. Regardless of the morbidity, the views and atmosphere on the mountain were incredible!

Day 44: El Raval

Wandering around the El Raval neighborhood is like leaving posh and cosmopolitan Barcelona and entering the authentically raucous, and often rough, Barcelona. El Raval encompasses a large portion of Barcelona that includes historic areas, the old red light district, fashionable art studios and boutiques, and a large ethnic area. El Raval is a young and vibrant place, most of it alive throughout most of the night. Of course, this means that the area also has its seedy parts, even after the government spent much of the late 1980’s cleaning up the traditional red light district.

El Raval is historically infamous for the roaring nightlife, prostitution, crime, and cabarets. While these things still exist, the area now contains its own particular flavor, as well as a significant immigrant population. I love El Raval for the crazy cat statue, the delicious food, and the little boutiques. It definitely has a certain personality and flavor!

Day 43: Watching the sun rise

Snorkeling and the Olympics left us thoroughly exhausted, so the next day we decided to take it easy and catch up on some sleep. In reality, we were following the Spanish tradition of staying out late, rising early (to work), and spending the hotest part of the afternoon sleeping. It took us awhile to adjust to the siesta system, but we’re getting there!

That night we decided to try Barcelona’s famous music hotspot with people from the hostel, Razzmatazz. We were there before for the Regina Spektor concert, but Saturday nights at Razzmatazz are famous in the hit city of Barcelona. Razzmatazz is a giant building with 5 floors, each dedicated to a different, wholly original sound. Much of the music is techno-based, as is most European music.

After leaving Razzmatazz, we walked along the Barceloneta beach and decided to try the water. The Mediterranean Sea was warm, wavy, and very salty. A few of us even stayed on the beach to watch the sun rise. It was my first sunrise in Barcelona and it was so beautiful!

Day 42 Continued: Olympic Appetizer Party!

Upon arriving we Barcelona, we immediately began preparations for the activity we were hosting that day- an Olympic Opening Ceremonies Appetizer Party! Essentially, we gathered a group of guests to cook appetizers before watching the Open Ceremonies together as a group.

Unfortunately, we returned from la Costa Brava later than expected and had to quickly do heaps of shopping (luckily the guests came to help carry bags while I waited outside with our plethora of bags). Then we returned to the hostel, took over the kitchen, and delegated out tasks to each of the 20 people. In the end, we made: bruschetta, guacamole dip, queso dip, refried beans, chips, Spanish olives, and pita pockets with tomatoes, red peppers, green peppers, onions, garlic, lettuce, corn, cheese, and meat. Although it turned out to be more Mexican-themed than originally planned, the meal was still a huge success. And we finished cooking just in time to enjoy the opening ceremonies! Afterward, we had coke floats (they don’t have root beer here) with nata, aka cream, ice cream.

All in all, it was the perfect end to an amazing (and exhausting) day!

Note: Annie and I just decided to change our plans a little bit and will now be spending August 9-13 in PARIS! We couldn’t be more excited!

Day 42: Snorkeling and Kayaking La Costa Brava

Day 41: We were supposed to lead a group to Montserrat but not enough people wanted to come so we stayed here and caught up on some chores- like adding blog posts and putting pictures on Facebook!

We started the day by going to la Costa Brava for a kayaking and snorkeling tour. La Costa Brava, which means “brave (or rugged) coast,” is aptly named for its rugged coastline and roaring waves. We visited a beach about an hour and half outside of Barcelona, in the province of Girona, called Sant Pol. The whole Costa Brava, which stretches along to the French border, was transformed into a holiday destination for wealthy Northern Europeans by the Spanish government in the 1950s. Tourism has since taken over the area, as many famous stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and artists like Salvador Dalí) have lent their glamour to the area. Although much of the coast still retains the traditional, small-town feel. La Costa Brava is also famous for its influence on writers (Truman Capote, Federico García Lorca) and for its influence in cinema- after Barcelona, the area makes more appearances in film than anywhere else in Spain.

The beach we went to was right outside of the historic city of Girona, in a trendy (and expensive) tourist area. It was overcast, rainy, and windy (although still warm), which was both good and bad for our trip. When its overcast, marine life is more active, yet the waves made kayaking a little more treacherous. We thought it was quite an adventure and the sun eventually made an appearance. We kayaked through some caves along the cliffs and then went snorkeling along some islands and the coastline. It was absolutely incredible. You can swim right through the vast groups of fish, many of whom are right on the surface, nearly touching them. We saw bright orange and blue fish, as well as fish of all sizes. We had to look out for sea urchins, while still enjoying the sea anenamies and star fish along the bottom. We also saw bright red sea anenamies- they look like squishy apples- that bloom into beautiful flowers. At one point, I was scared half to death by a crab crawling near my hand.

After snorkeling, we spent some time warming up on the rocks and then headed back in to have bocadillo sandwiches (a common and cheap meal in the area) and make the long trip home along the beautiful coast.

Day 40: Sitges town and beach

We have become thoroughly sick of being in the city; so we decided to take a group from the hostel to Sitges, a famous beach town about half an hour west of Barcelona.

Sitges is a former fishing village full of world famous beaches, a bohemian spirit, and gay pride. The town alone has 11 accredited beaches (yes, that is a thing), and there are 6 more right outside the perimeter. The sand here is incredibly smooth and fine, which is very different than the Barceloneta beaches (where the sand is actually continually imported from Egypt). The beaches are also less crowded and full of sailboats. In addition, the town has been a bohemian retreat since the 18th century when wealthy traders set up holiday villas, attracting artists and writers looking for inspiration from the azure waters, whitewashed houses and wild landscapes. In the late 19th century, the towns artsy reputation was furthered when Picasso and his friends began frequenting the area. Later on, during Franco’s reign in the 1960s, Sitges gained a reputation as a countercultural party center.

Nowadays, Sitges is a popular beach spot for vacationing Catalonians as well as people world-wide. The town lives up to its party reputation as the birthplace of Facundo Bacardí (although his company was built in Cuba). It is also considered the gay capital of northern Spain, hosting the biggest gay pride festival in Spain. Sitges is also famous for its Carnival and film festival.

It was wonderful to come and relax on the soft beaches here, especially when we had spent the day before (Day 39) navigating our way through the rough sands of the Barceloneta beaches. Nevertheless, both days we were lucky enough to enjoy big waves and HOT sun!