Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 14!

The morning tour of London included St. Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guard, and ton of walking in the rain - so Mom decided to pass on this tour, which she'd taken on a previous visit to London, and wait for Megan to arrive from Prague.

So I went with the tour group. Our first stop was St. Paul's where our new tour guide told us about the water brigades that stood atop the church during the blitz and put out any blazes before they could spread. I had no idea the significance that Londoners attached to being able to look to St. Paul's as a symbol of their resilience and survival.

After St. Paul's, we headed toward Buckingham Palace - just in time to enjoy a real taste of London weather. The temperature was a good twenty degrees cooler than anytime on the trip and it was pouring rain. Of course, the rain meant no ceremonial Changing of the Guard - but it was interesting to learn that the Changing of the Guard is not the hourly shift change, as some tourists believe. It occurs daily, weather permitting, when the regiment that is retiring their duty of service turns over the mantle of responsibility to the new regiment. It is, we were told, accompanied by the regiment's band and a grand procession of the entire company that assemble on the grounds of Buckingham Palace to be inspected before assuming their duties.

The bus cruised through a good bit of the city giving us a brief tour before returning to the hotel around lunch time - just in time for me to meet Megan as she emerged from the subway station. Our plan was for Megan to fly into Heathrow and take the Underground from there to Victoria Station, which was within a block of the hotel. Seems simple enough, right? It turns out, they were doing some type of work on that line and she had to lug all her luggage from her nine weeks in Prague up five flights of stairs, onto a bus, then back down at the next Underground station and then up several more flights at Victoria Station. She was really dragging by the time she met us!

After settling her luggage in our room, we ventured out in the pouring rain to find The Albert - the pub our bus driver had recommended. The block that our hotel was on was not so much a block as a triangle, which made it a little confusing. Add to that the fact that his description - brown wood with potted flowers hanging outside - turned out to describe half the pubs in London! By the time we found it, we were pretty soaked.

With the weather continuing to be nasty, Mom decided to relax in the hotel while Megan and I braved the Underground to see Westminster Abbey, Parliament and Piccadilly Circus. We actually had someone come up and give me their day pass for the subway as we were waiting to purchase one! Brits are so nice. But I must say as we made our way through the tunnels to the platform - tunnels that were completely packed with people, more crowded than the rock concerts I attended in high school - all I could think of was the bombings that occurred there a number of years ago. The thought of being trapped in those tunnels with people stampeding in panic was quite nerve-wracking. I was quite glad when we arrived at Westminster!

They had just closed for the day, so we didn't get to see inside, which was a disappointment, but the outside was beautiful. I never realized how similar Notre Dame and Westminster Abbey were.

I was determined not to take the Underground again until we had to so we walked from Westminster and Parliament to Piccadilly Circus. The main purpose of visiting Piccadilly was so that Megan could point out the Piccadilly Backpackers Hostel where she and two fellow study abroad students stayed for several days at the beginning of her adventure. Suffice to say, if I or her daddy had seen this place before she left, she would have been in a hotel even if it meant selling a kidney. Picture a motel in Times Square that rents by the hour and you'll be getting close.

We finally headed back to the room to synch up with Mom for dinner. The ride back in the tube was even more packed - in fact, at one point, I had to yell at this man who was crushing Megan against the pole. I imagine this is what India is like. After that experience, there was one thing I was sure of - Mom would NOT be getting on the London tube.

We had dinner across the street from the hotel at a pub called The Bag O' Nails - we figured with a name like that, it had to be good. And it didn't disappoint! In fact, I think it was probably better than The Albert.

We plotted our final day over dinner. The Hop-On, Hop-Off bus that almost constantly had a bus parked in front of our hotel seemed like the best way to see the things that remained on our list - ideally, the British National Museum, the Museum of Victoria and Albert, and hopefully at least a glimpse of the Tower Bridge. We had made our reservation for the following evening at the Heathrow Hilton and decided it would be the best $100 we had spent to take a taxi to the airport after hearing Megan's harrowing tale of trying to maneuver the tube with her luggage.

I have to point out a few amusing aspects of London that we noticed - first, the water pressure for their toilets is pitiful. They seem to require you to stand there and cheer them on, 'You can do it! You can do it!' In Paris, on the other hand, if you don't hop up fast enough, they could suck you right down the drain! The other thing we noticed in London is the poor placement of their automatic hand dryers - at least three times we walked into a ladies' room and in walking in, set off the dryer. The last time, in the Bag O' Nails, Mom set it off and was so startled by the sudden rush of hot air, she jumped three feet in the air and nearly had an accident right there on the floor. I think this may be a plot to get back at American tourists. Just sayin'.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 13!

Day 13 started with breakfast at the hotel - this hotel, despite being one of the nicest ones in many respects - had one of the lamest breakfast set ups. There was a huge buffet, but the tables were not cleaned regularly so by the time we got there, only places covered with crumbs and spills were left. White linen table cloths are only nice when they are clean. The food was mediocre even though there was plenty...maybe I was just tired of the same thing for breakfast each day.

We left around 8:30am to catch the 11am high speed train to London which you would think would be plenty of time, but when we got to the train station, we had to wait until they brought a baggage cart around for our luggage - once again, our gentlemen were quick to help load the carts since Stefano was driving the bus once again. Then we started for the security check and platform. We had waited long enough for the carts that I think Simone was concerned about us making the train because she was moving at a pretty good clip and we quickly fell behind. We finally managed to catch up when they hit the throng of people waiting to go through security, but a French couple with a child in a stroller cut in line between us and our group. Since we had no idea where we were supposed to go and didn't want to get separated from the group, I said, "Pardon me, we're with that group and we don't want to get lost," and we stepped ahead of them. The woman said, "Oh, yes, go ahead, you are such small children to be traveling alone." Nice. Well, it wouldn't be a trip to Paris without a little French attitude, now would it?

We made it to our car of the train just in time with only a few minutes to take our seats before the train left. I have to admit, although I pride myself in being pretty proficient in geography, I had no idea Paris was so far inland. I had this idea that the train was basically just the 'Chunnel', when in reality the majority of the trip was overland. It was not a bad ride overall - but a word to the wise, buy your lunch early because they only pack so much food and they started running out of the more popular lunches very quickly. I think we ended up eating an apple, a candy bar, and Mom got the last cup o' noodles meal. Of course, as we raced through the train station, we decided we had carried the fruit, which the hotel in Venice had given us for the inconvenience with the AC, long enough and tossed it.

We arrived at Kings Cross St. Pancras Station around 1pm and were picked up by a new bus to take us to the hotel, the Westminster Thistle.

OK, so it doesn't look like much from the street - but it really wasn't bad. The room was the largest we had the whole trip, with two true double beds and a sleeper loveseat. The only difficulty was the passage getting into the room wasn't wide enough to roll the suitcases...which are about 21" wide. We were glad for the larger beds since Megan was joining us and we were hoping to have her stay in our room rather than having to pay for another room. In addition, the hotel was located within a block or so of Victoria Station and literally across the street from the stable entrance to Buckingham Palace.

Simone handed us off to "the ladies in red" - Globus tour guides in London who wear red blazers. Funniest moment, when I asked our new guide if we were going to have to walk to dinner and the show, Wicked, that night. She looked at me a little like I was crazy and said, no, they had a bus to take us. Then we discovered that night that the bus drove us no more than a total of three blocks to get to the restaurant and the theatre! We could have easily walked, but they had the bus because some of the folks going to dinner and the show were staying at another hotel much farther away. The new guide proved to be much nicer and more helpful than Simone - she helped us get a cab lined up for our trip to the airport hotel for our last night and gave us good directions to find a cash machine and the subway station that Megan would be coming from (Victoria Station).

Dinner before the show was at Bank restaurant - and it was delicious. We had a few choices and I was a little worried when I saw the choices for the main course - pan-seared trout, risotto with mushrooms, and chicken with coconut and sweet potatoes. Now normally, I would have chosen chicken, but there are few things I hate more than coconut and sweet potatoes - maybe if they had drizzled raspbery sauce on it, that might have made it even less appealing - and I like mushrooms ok, but they don't like me at all, so it was trout for me. As I've mentioned, I'm not generally a big fan of fish, but this was fantastic! Paired with the duck springroll appetizer and the sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch sauce - wow, makes me wish I could fly back to London, just to have it again. It was that good. And not a ton of food, so I was satisfied but not stuffed when we left.

We got to the Apollo Victoria Theatre and found our seats - about ten rows back on the right side - excellent seats. I was surprised how small the theatre was - much smaller than our Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh, so there really weren't any bad seats in the house. The show was magnificent! It definitely lived up to all the rave reviews I'd heard from Megan, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.

As we got off the bus, we asked our charming, Cockney-accented bus driver if there were any pubs that he would recommend in the area for lunch or dinner the next day and he gave us directions to The Albert, not far from our hotel. 

Day 14 - St. Paul's, Buckingham Palace, Megan arrives! Just three days left!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 12!

Our first morning in Paris, we once again enjoyed sleeping 'in' until around 7am. Being in Paris on Bastille Day is a little like being in Washington, DC, on the Fourth of July - something you probably only want to do once. We awoke and turned on the TV in our room while we were getting ready to learn that five French soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan that morning - the highest toll in a single day since they had deployed troops to aid in the war there. Interviews with patriotic French citizens expressed anger and frustration, heightened by the losses, at their government for participating in the war. We were a little nervous about being anywhere near the throngs who were gathered for the Bastille Day celebration, so we decided to visit Notre Dame since it was not in the midst of the celebrations.

Our hotel was half a block from the subway station, so while the rest of the tour group was speed-walking through Versailles, we caught the subway to the station as directed by the concierge. It was still a good little hike from the station to the cathedral, and the streets were busy, but also well-guarded by policemen at each corner. They were very helpful in directing us toward Notre Dame. Along the way, we met an American couple who had just come from the Louvre and said not only was it open, but it was free. We instantly regretted having told Simone we would meet the group at the hotel at 12:30pm for the afternoon tour. Instead of being able to walk from Notre Dame to the Louvre, we would have to take the subway back to the hotel and meet them and let them know that we had a new plan.

As we were walking along the bank of the Seine River toward Notre Dame, several airplanes executed fly-bys with red, white, and blue smoke trailing behind them. It was quite a sight to turn around and see the Eiffel Tower in the distance with jets flying by overhead.

When we arrived at Notre Dame, there was no line to get in at all - most of the crowds were at the parade although there were still a significant number of people milling around outside and touring the beautiful cathedral.

We toured the cathedral quickly because we were eager to get word to Simone and head over to the Louvre knowing that we had limited time and wanting to see as much as we could there. We hurried back to the hotel and had a few minutes to rest our feet before meeting Simone and the others from the group who had opted out of the tour of Versailles. When we explained to Simone (and the other members of the tour) that not only was the Louvre open, but it was also free admission today in honor of Bastille Day, she was pretty obviously miffed with the tour company for having told her it was closed. We told Rama and Lori, the two librarians from the tour that we had teamed up with on the gondola ride, that we would meet them for dinner at the open air shopping area right outside the subway station by our hotel and set off for the Louvre.

When we arrived, the crowds there were fairly thick - it took us a while to find our way to the back of the line which seemed to stretch on forever. But the guard near the front had said about an hour wait, and we definitely thought it was worth standing in line for an hour. Fortunately, the gentleman behind us gave us lots of good advice for when we got inside. He showed us his dog-eared and falling-apart map of the museum and urged us to pick one up at the information desk as soon as we entered - without the map, he told us quite accurately, you could be lost inside for days. He was from Costa Rica, visiting a friend who was studying in Paris and this was his third day straight visiting the Louvre!

It turned out that the line moved very rapidly and it was only about 20 minutes until we said good-bye to our friend from the line and, map in hand, set out to see what we could see in a few short hours. We started with the Egyptian exhibits and tried to focus on a few of the highlighted pieces, as he had suggested, but there were just so many wonders to see. I like to read every placard, or at least most, when I visit a museum, but of course, these were in French, so we were mostly just pausing a few seconds at each case and quickly trying to absorb whatever we could of the ancient culture. It wasn't long before we were turned around and trying to figure out whether we had already seen that sarcophagus or not? We finally decided that we had seen all we could enjoy of Egyptian art and studied our map to try to find our way to the French Renaissance artwork. To get to that, we cut through the Greek displays - which are showcased in sections that were once the palatial home of the Kings of France. The rooms themselves, and the paintings on the ceilings, were much more interesting to me than the still impressive Greek statues.

The French Renaissance rooms were so overwhelming - canvases larger than most of the walls in my house boasted paintings with detail that even after hundreds of years, it seemed as if you could touch the skin of their faces. In fact, we were quite surprised that the artwork was generally not protected in any way from people touching it, although we didn't see anyone doing so. As we emerged from our final room, with only one thing left to see - the Mona Lisa - we were faced with a life-sized puzzle. We stood on one level with stairs going down to one side and to the other. One set led to a floor below, while the other was about half a flight, then a statue on display, then half a flight up on the other side. Across an open atrium we could see similar stairs on the other side, and saw based on the map that was where we needed to go to get out as it was nearly 5pm and we wanted to get to the subway ahead of the huge crowds. We stood at the top and looked at all the stairs, and looked at our map - it appeared that we would have to go down the equivalent of two flights of stairs and then immediately back up two flights in order to get out - it just seemed pointless and excruciating after having been on our feet about five hours between our trek to Notre Dame and our time at the museum. Finally, I figured out that if we went down the small flight by the statue and back up the other side, there was a room that would lead us to the other side of the atrium where we could exit. And would put us within a very short distance of the Mona Lisa - instead of standing in a long line that was waiting dutifully to stand before the small picture, we ducked into the room from the opposite direction, peeked around the wall and were able to get a pretty good view of her despite the crowd.

We took a few moments to find a seat and rest before beginning the walk back to the subway, but while we were resting we met some chaperones from the Mid-western United States who were with a large group of band students - the Mid-West Ambassadors of Music. Some 200+ band and choir students from all over the mid-west were touring London, Paris, Switzerland and several smaller countries performing. What a wonderful group and great idea for broadening kids' perspectives!

When we finally started trekking back to the subway station, I convinced Mom there was a closer station than the one we'd taken to get there. We got to the station and she was very worried that we wouldn't be able to find the right trains to get us back. We might have had trouble, too, since the woman in the glass booth was our first taste of the infamous French hospitality - I showed her my map and pointed on it to the Bercy station and she rattled off something in French that sounded suspiciously like, go take a flying leap off the Eiffel Tower, you stupid American. I can't be sure. We were blessed, though, when a young black man asked if he could help and I showed him the map. He didn't understand English either, but understood what it meant when I pointed to Bercy. He went to the window, spoke to the woman in French and then returned and pointed to the map and then pointed down the hall of the subway. Trusting our good Samaritan and hoping for the best, we followed the growing crowd of people into the subway.

With the parade over and the day winding down, the trains were getting much more crowded and we initially had to stand up on the train, but very shortly it stopped and some seats opened up. A group of about five young men, probably in their late teens or early 20s got on the train with one young woman. They were a pretty rough looking group, with piercings and unique haircuts, and expressions that scream of bottled up rage and frustration. When a seat opened up and one of the young men flopped into it, leaving the young woman standing up, clinging to the pole, Mom muttered with quiet sarcasm, "What a nice young man you are, won't even let the lady have the seat."

I have to say, this was the one and only time the entire trip when Mom and I almost got into a fight! I could just picture these hoodlums deciding they didn't appreciate Mom's tips on etiquette and beating us both to a pulp, but somehow Mom - the same Mom who has warned me all my life about how to avoid being a victim - didn't see anything wrong with taking this young man to task for his lack of chivalry. We did manage to escape unharmed, but I still think, based on the riots in London not long after we'd left, that a good tip for traveling in foreign countries is not to pick fights with young hoodlums. Just sayin'.

We arrived at the hotel and took some time to relax and freshen up before we were supposed to meet Lori and Rama for dinner, but then found out that Simone hadn't given them the message that we wouldn't be on the afternoon tour but would still meet them for dinner. Since they weren't in their room, we decided to go on without them, but ended up running into them in the shopping area and so we got to have dinner together after all.

By the time dinner was over, we were worn out and ready to put our feet up and relax, glad we had opted out of the optional excursion to Moulin Rouge and could get some rest before leaving for London in the morning.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 11!

The day began with us learning that Stefano, our bus driver, and Simone had spent the night in the Emergency Room being treated for a problem with his back. Simone was searching diligently for another driver who could drive us to Paris, but since it was Sunday, she wasn't able to reach anyone at the Globus offices. I suggested that perhaps we should take the train to Paris since our hotel was about two blocks from the train station. Simone's response was, "it's really not a humorous situation." Can someone explain how my very reasonable solution to the problem seemed humorous? Maybe it didn't translate well.

Shortly after we were scheduled to leave, Stefano appeared and said he believed he could at least make it two hours to the French border. The gentlemen in our group quickly stepped up and loaded all our luggage in order to spare Stefano's back and we were off just a little later than originally planned.

So far on our trip, we had not seen any rain, so the timing was perfect when it rained virtually all day as we drove to Paris. When we reached the border, Stefano said he was feeling better and would finish the trip to the French capital. The countryside looked a lot like the Piedmont of North Carolina with rolling hills and farmland. The only distinction was the regular appearance of small villages, each with a single church steeple.

It was quite a long trip, about eight hours on the bus, with an hour at the AutoGrill for lunch. The cafeteria-style restaurant was pretty good. After lunch, Simone spent the afternoon telling us about the history of France. She also explained that our full day in Paris was on Bastille Day which meant that some of the sights, including the Louvre, would be closed, and our tour schedule would be the reverse of their usual schedule in order to avoid the crowds and the parade. I was disappointed to think that we would miss getting to see the Louvre, which was one of the top things I wanted to do in Paris.

Note: I really was amazed not only at Simone's ability to talk for 8 hours a day, but also her ability to maneuver the aisle of the bus as it sped down the highway without landing in anyone's lap.

We arrived in Paris around 5pm and the gentleman once again took care of our luggage - what a wonderful group they were! Everyone thanked Stefano profusely for suffering through a long day behind the wheel despite his condition. The hotel in Paris was the Paris Bercy Pullman - which was away from all the activity of Bastille Day, but was a beautiful and very modern hotel. We decided to join the group for the dinner and Paris by night tour after all, and we really enjoyed ourselves. Our group was given a private room and that was probably a good thing, since we got a little rowdy! One of the couples on our tour were newlyweds and so we had the waiter bring her cake with a candle to celebrate. When the obligatory musicians came into the room, they got up and danced. The next thing we knew, some of the young guys had picked up her chair and were carrying her around the room!

The dinner was delicious and I even had the opportunity to try escargot and liver pate - notice I said, I had the opportunity. I chose to let opportunity keep right on knocking. I enjoyed a salad, beef bourguignon and a scrumptious slice of chocolate cake instead. Afterward, we piled back into the bus for the tour of Paris (courtesy of a new driver).

We ran into a few roadblocks as they were already beginning to block traffic for the Bastille Day parade scheduled for the next morning, but were able to arrive at the Eiffel Tower in time to quickly pull to the side of the road (blocking traffic) and get off the bus and take pictures for a few minutes. The tower was quite amazing, especially all lit up at night and each hour they set off lights that looked as if they'd attached a million + firecrackers to the frame. It was dazzling. As we drove back to the hotel, Simone pointed out various points of interest including the Louvre, Champs Elysee, and the tunnel where Princess Di was killed.

Even with the majority of the day spent on the bus traveling across most of France, we enjoyed ourselves and were thankful that we hadn't had to spend the day waiting for a bus driver to arrive - although honestly, I think Mom and I both would have been perfectly happy to be 'stuck' in Lucerne!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tales for the TRIP - Day 10 - Lucerne, Switzerland

Mom and I enjoyed sleeping in until about 7:00 and then hurried downstairs to get breakfast before the 9am deadline. They had finished serving breakfast and were cleaning up when we got down there, but directed us to a second restaurant in the hotel that was still serving. It was such a pleasure to have the day ahead of us with only the group dinner scheduled for us.

After breakfast we walked several blocks through the cool morning to the shopping area Simone had pointed out the day before. Their agreement with a shop named Bucherer's included a free spoon - and once again the use of their clean and free restrooms for the day! We enjoyed browsing through their shop that included jewelry and watches, Cuckoo clocks, and Swiss army knives. I ended up getting a small pocket knife for each of my sons and having their names engraved on them.

Our next stop was to find our way to the city wall - I was determined to learn more about it and hopefully see the town from atop the wall. We had pulled out our map and were searching for a path to the wall when a very friendly local stopped and asked if she could help. She told us exactly how to get to the wall, where we could actually get into the tower and walk along the wall, where there were benches along the way, and recommended that we take a bottle of water with us. In fact, everyone we met in Lucerne was incredibly friendly and helpful.

We meandered through the shopping district and up the hillside to the city wall, climbed up into the tower and walked along the ledge they are in the process of adding. It ran along 3/4 of the wall, which dates back to the 14th century. The views from the wall were stunning - and we were so sorry we didn't have a really good camera. Here's what we were able to capture with the little disposable-

OK, so imagine a view about a million times more beautiful than this - it just seems impossible to really capture how beautiful it was!

We walked back along the base of the wall, beside a pasture featuring a shaggy-haired cow. It was interesting to see that one side of the wall was 'city' and the other was 'country' even after 700 years!

We meandered back through the shopping district and found the most adorable fondue restaurant for lunch. We were able to share a meal again - this time bratwurst, swiss cheese fondue, and then a chocolate fondue. Again - one meal, two people, and lots of leftovers. Even left some of the chocolate fondue, if you can believe that! Actually, I have to admit, the Melting Pot's fondue is much better, but still, this was good.

Even on our own, we had spent a good 4-5 hours walking - but didn't feel nearly as exhausted as we had in Rome. Being able to take it at our own pace and rest when we needed to made a huge difference. We went back to the hotel and relaxed before the scheduled dinner with our group - interested to find out of their tour had been what we expected.

The dinner that evening was in the rooftop restaurant with a nice view of the city and they served grilled fish - which is not generally my favorite. But it was delicious...probably the best fish I'd ever had. We enjoyed hearing about their tour and the previous evening's yodeling - which actually did sound like they'd had fun and some of the members of the group got to try their hand at alpine-horn-blowing. Still we were glad we had been able to go our own way and don't believe we missed a thing. The train-ride up the mountain that they took turned out a little more as we had thought - when they arrived at the 'top' they had to climb a number of tall stairs if they wanted to reach the area with an actual view. Even the young men in the group (age 20 and very fit) said they could barely catch their breath due to the altitude - definitely would not have been a good plan for Mom and me!

We got to sit with some folks at dinner we hadn't had a chance to really meet, including one of the 'Mom and son' couples. The son, Mike, played in his high school band and was looking forward to being in the band at Pitt this fall. Talking about band really made me miss my kids though!

We finished off the evening by spending some time at the lounge on the roof - a different section of it was open this evening, so we had a view of the lake and the rest of the city as well as a view of the mountain that the group had visited that day. We also met some ladies about Mom's age who were traveling from Australia for six weeks through Europe. The night before we had met another two couples who were traveling from Australia and finished their tour with a two week stay in Lucerne!

Tomorrow - Paris!