Friday, May 15, 2009

Several Posts in One!

I can't believe how much I haven't posted yet! I've been writing the items below on and off for several days. If any of it is repeated my apologies; I'll edit after I get home. (And add pictures!!!)

Paris; Monday; The Louvre

We didn't have any specific plans for today although I was thinking of heading to Montmartre and Sacre Coure. That plan was scratched with one look outside- gray and drizzly and most likely cold. We decided to try for something indoors instead but museums were out because they are usually closed on Mondays. Since museums are about the only indoor things on our list, we double checked and found out The Louvre is open Mondays (closed Tuesdays) so that's where we decided to go. We raced out like a herd of turtles (thank you Lois for that analogy- it's far too accurate and The Eldest and I have been saying it repeatedly on this trip; cracks us up every time) and grabbed breakfast at a little shop on the way to the Metro, which we have all figured out thanks to our chance meeting last night with the couple from London. The Eldest once again navigated successfully to The Louvre. (She told me I have my sudoku puzzles that I enjoy solving; she has subway systems.) We didn't enter through the pyramid since the metro station is a part of an underground mall that's connected to the Louvre entrances. It's quite a set up down there! Food court, shops, Starbucks, you name it. We were directed to an office (set up in a shop-like space) where I purchased a 4 day museum pass for myself; The Eldest gets in free since she's under 26. The guy at the information desk said he thought I would qualify for the free admission too- what a flirt! Guess I can check “flirting with a Frenchman” off my “things to do in Paris” list. ;)

We finally got into the Louvre! Like everyone else, we went into the Denon wing first to catch the Mona Lisa. She is lovely; I'd been warned that she was small so she was actually a little bigger than I had envisioned. Prior to seeing her, though, we saw “Winged Victory” which is placed right at the top of a grand staircase; wowee wow wow, that's one impressive statue, even if it is headless. The third “must see” is the Venus de Milo and we went to where my Louvre guide book said she would be but she wasn't there after all. There was a temporary exhibit in that room so she's either rotated out for now, loaned out, undergoing maintenance, or moved somewhere else. Regardless, we didn't find her, but we spent a good bit of time looking at other statues from the same era. The Eldest even spent a little time sketching one of the busts, something on her Paris “to do” list. It was about this point when we got really hungry but the lines at the cafes inside the museum where a mile long. We wandered back out of the Louvre proper and into the mall area and finally discovered the food court. (I was determined NOT to eat at Starbucks!!) We ate at a Spanish tapas bar, so now we've eaten French croissants in London and Spanish tapas in France. Sheese. Halfway through the meal The Eldest started feeling sick, and then she got worse and worse, so instead of going back into the Louvre as planned we left. I was having a hard time of it anyway since the fibromyalgia was acting up. I would have pressed on (after all, how often do you get to go to the Louvre? I can give in another day) but with The Eldest also feeling ill we left. I would have liked to ask about the Venus and found another painting my dermatologist recommended for us to see, but we were just too wiped out to continue. Home again on the metro, and the end of our Louvre day.

Pax Lodge
I'm back tracking a bit here to write more about our accommodations in London. We stayed at Pax Lodge, a World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) world center. It was absolutely fantastic. The rooms were neat and clean (I think I've written about them already- they are kind of like dorm rooms) and the staff is so warm and friendly. Part of our Girl Scout Law states that we are to be a “Sister to Every Girl Scout” and they certainly made us feel like family. We even found ourselves referring to the Lodge as “home” while we were in London. I so wanted to hug all of the staff members when we left! I asked if we could get a picture with a couple of the girls before leaving and they went ahead and called as many staff members over as they could find. (I'll post the pictures after we get home.) There are a few paid staff members but many of the girls are there working on a volunteer basis. They are from all over the world and have five month shifts. The center pays for room and board and gives them a small allowance. The girls are encouraged to travel during their time off as well so it's a wonderful opportunity and something The Eldest may apply for when she's older. I am really going to encourage the girls in The Middle Child's Brownie troop to start working towards a trip to Pax Lodge when they are old enough; I can't wait to get back there myself!!

Wednesday Morning
Backtracking again here- as I was reading over what I've written already I realized I didn't say much about Hampstead where Pax Lodge is located in London. It's completely charming. The building we so admired next to the lodge was indeed a church, or used to be anyway. Now it's a studio of some sort. When we walk out of the lodge past the studio, then turn the corner heading towards the Belsize Park tube station, we pass a few row homes first then come upon a BP gas station followed by shops and cafes lining both sides of the street. There are so many places to eat! We stopped in at the Euphorium Bakery several times for croissants and pastries both for dinner on our way home and breakfast on our way out. We picked up “take away” from the Weng Wah House since we had to eat Chinese food in London at least once. There was a Kentucky Fried Chicken; we did NOT eat there. It wasn't free standing like the KFCs in the states; it was part of the row of stores. A couple of markets, Daunt Books, a bank or two, a flower store, some artsy stores, and so forth. The tube station fit right in as well and was just another part of the street. I went the other direction on the street once to find the post office to send a package of goodies home and that was even more picturesque, if you can believe it. There were the same shops lining both sides of the street but there were more trees and a few more homes interspersed along the way. While waiting for the post office to open (which was totally weird-I'm never up early enough to worry about things not being open yet!!!) I wandered into a bakery where I bought a baguette. After the post office I bought a pint of fresh Kent strawberries at the farmer's market that was setting up. (We ate the strawberries and baguette in the 3 hour long wait to get into Westminster Abbey, which is another post in itself. They were delicious; probably the best strawberries I've ever eaten and much better than even the freshly picked Florida berries. They had a softer flavor and texture than Florida berries.) This was our last morning in Hampstead and I so hated to leave; I'm totally head over heels in love with London.

Friday Morning in Paris
After playing Hard Core Tourists for a few days, The Eldest and I are sleeping in and taking it easy for the morning. We're joining a walking tour of Montmartre later on, but for now we're resting our weary bones. This tourist stuff is hard work!

Yesterday we took the Fat Tire Bike Tour of Versailles. We started out with a bike ride from the tour offices to the train which was an adventure in itself. Wending our way through Parisian traffic with 20 other bikers- well, we made it safely, thanks to Crystal, our tour guide extraordinaire. Prior to the train she took a minute to turn our handle bars so that the bikes would have a smaller profile so we had to walk them the last little bit. We also had to carry them down a flight of stairs- yipes! The Eldest and I had a little trouble with that one, not because of the weight of the bikes (they are heavy) but because of the awkwardness. We made it most of the way then Crystal gave us a little bit of a hand for the last few steps. After that we “stormed the train”, as Crystal said, in groups of 4 per car and off for the 20 minute trip to Versailles.

Once we arrived our first stop was a food market that's been in continuous operation for a bazillion years. It's the kind of market I've always dreamed of! Fresh everything, bakeries and butchers and produce stands and wine shops (which we didn't visit) and cheese shops; I was in heaven. I went to the bakery Crystal recommended first, of course, and loaded up on pastries and bread. After that a stop at a stand that sold a variety of items where we picked up some filled pastries and cheese, then to a produce stand for some strawberries. After that I bought an umbrella for yes, once again, it was RAINING. We're getting the kind of weather here I expected of London- every day gray, gray, gray, lots of drizzly rain, and cold. (We've decided we're sending Uncle Mark a howler when we get home for telling us to travel this time of year.) On a lucky day the sun might peek out for an hour or so but other than that it's been all gray all the time. :(

We regrouped after shopping and started for Versailles. Crystal gave us a lot of information about the grounds and French history over the course of the tour but my favorite tidbit is the story of the current master gardener for Versailles. It seems he's a bit of a rebel in that he has introduced sustainable gardening techniques to the grounds. He's cut back on pesticides and that alone has brought back the birds, which apparently fled the area for many years when they were using heavy chemicals all the time. I'm so thankful because the sounds of the birds added so much to our visit! The guy caught some flack for it, too, since he also, as Crystal said, decided that if “begonias don't grow here naturally then we're not going to have begonias” and that caused a bit of an uproar. Crystal also talked a bit about the difference between French gardens, which are very manicured because they want to show they can control nature, and English gardens, which are more go with the flow of nature.

We biked through a gilded gateway and entered Versailles. We entered a back gate so we found ourselves in a more natural area where we couldn't see the palace itself. There were large fields with horses and sheep to the left and wooded areas to the right; our path was lined with neat rows of trees on either side. We made our way to the “Hammo”, or hamlet, Louis the XVI built for Marie Antoinette. We were on the back side and couldn't get a good look at it, unfortunately. Our next stop was the...can't remember the name of the place, possibly Grand Trianon, but it was a regal outbuilding for the palace where they would have plays and fancy dinners and so forth. There was a lot of very expensive marble. Next we went to the Petite Trianon, and I think that's where Madame Pompidou's house was. One of the Louiss built it for her (she was his favorite mistress) but she died before it was completed so it became Marie Antoinette's hang out. We pedaled on over to our picnic spot at the end of the Grand Canal with an incredible view of the palace at the other end. The worst of the rain was over but it was still drizzly and wet; we made the best of it and sat on the ponchos we bought at the tour company offices. I have to say that was one of the best meals I've ever eaten. The strawberries were perfection, the cheese was mild, which is how I like it, and the pastries were flaky and delicious. Several of the other folks on the tour bought wine at the market so they were enjoying that as well. (I don't drink.) The word idyllic comes to mind; a picnic by the Grand Canal at Versailles must be the definition of that word in the dictionary. When we finished lunch we hopped back on our bikes to ride through the pathways on the other side of the Grand Canal. Words can not do justice to how wonderful that ride felt. Birds were singing all along the way, the sky cleared and a cool breeze was blowing, the grounds were green and lush, and there was a sense of camaraderie among the tour participants (a few of the others were a little buzzed) that made it so refreshing. I felt so at peace with the world! Psychiatrists should prescribe a bike ride at Versailles to anyone who is feeling blue or angry; it's impossible to feel those feelings in that place, especially on a lovely spring day.

Once we got to the palace itself, Crystal gave us a little French history then turned us loose to explore the palace and gardens. The Eldest and I picked up audio guides and went around the rooms. After the grounds they were somewhat anti-climatic. Lovely, yes, but the whole place smelled of cat pee. There were tons of portraits of dead kings and queens. There were cracks in the ceiling and damage to the wood parquet floors so the place is somewhat run down. The Hall of Mirrors is interesting. There was a sculpture of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt there that was the same as the two at The Louvre; it was fun to say “hey, there's that same statue again”! We went through the palace then stepped out into the gardens for a moment. There was a fountain turned on but it was a bunch of garden hoses all hooked together to make a sort of column. I'm guessing it's someone's idea of “ART”. ;) Oh- speaking of the fountains, I was a little disappointed that the main fountain in front of the palace, the really super famous one, was off. I bet it's stunning when it's on.

The day continued and the tour ended with a train ride back to Paris, where I signed up for the Montmartre walk. This is turning out to be a very physical vacation!!

Friday: Montmartre Walk

After a quick lunch at a touristy (translation: mediocre in this case, poor in others) cafe across the street from the Moulin Rouge, we met up with Jean Paul, our walking tour guide for the next 2 hours. He took us by all the artist's haunts and was full of the latest info. Did you know, for instance, that it was recently discovered that Van Gogh did not cut off his own ear? He was horsing around with Gaughin, a fencer as well as an artist, and Gaughin did it. Van Gogh covered it up so Gaughin wouldn't get in trouble. They found out from some letters where Gaughin thanks him for covering it up, or something like that. All those arty types were hanging out, getting in trouble, and coming to tragic ends in Montmartre; The Eldest was captivated. (I was too, I must admit; Jean Paul made art history interesting.) What wasn't so captivating was the guy who was hitting on The Eldest. I shut him down with a sharp “I don't think so; she's 15” and was rewarded with an agonized “MOTHER” for my trouble. ;) He left us alone for the rest of the tour, though! (She didn't want the guy's attention; he was a little drunk and quite the jerk. She was just embarrassed that I announced her age to the entire group that way.)

At the conclusion we found ourselves at Sacre Coure, a lovely church with over 300 steps to the top; heaven help us. It's smaller than Notre Dame and considerably younger but just as lovely. The view from the top, since Sacre Coure is on a high hill in Paris, is unequaled. You can walk all the way around the dome so you get a panorama of the city. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the hideous Montparnasse Tower, the hills in the distance, all of it is visible from up there. They even have a few gargoyles, but not many. There are two statues flanking the entrance; one is Joan of Arc and the other is some king who was responsible for getting the Crown of Thorns to Paris.

After visiting the church and dome we hung out for a while on the steps that flow down the hill for a good distance, divided by plazas along the way. There was a singer with a guitar and microphone giving a concert that we sat in on for a bit. He was running an open mic so he would sing for a bit then people from the crowd would jump up and sing while he passed the collection cap and sold CDs. (Yes, we bought one; he was good.) The Eldest got up and sang!!! She did a great job; I have pictures! This is the one time I was wishing for a video cam but the still pics will have to do.

We followed this up with a stroll around a couple of blocks of tourist shops in the area. We were accosted by artists wanting to draw our portraits just about every other step. We ate dinner at a touristy (translation: awful) cafe where the waiter flirted outrageously with me. He told me I look like Meryl Streep, his favorite actress. Sheese. I already checked off flirted with a Frenchman on my list of “Paris Must Dos” so this was totally superfluous.

When we left the shops we had a gauntlet to run going back down the steps in front of the church toward the metro station; it was ridiculous! The Eldest overheard some people on one of our tours talking about a scam where guys with string will come up to you and ask for your hand then they tie string around your wrist and won't let you go until you pay them 10 euros. Sure enough, there were guys with string all over the place. They were aggressive with it, too! The Eldest was a little ahead of me and one of them approached her but she just kept walking; I got pissed and just started saying “NO” in an angry don't mess with my kid voice; it took several nos but they backed off. Jerks. As we walked on we saw one of the guys with a young couple tying colorful strings around the guy's finger, then I guess he was going to do the same to the girl but we didn't stick around to find out. We found the Metro and headed back to the hotel to pass out.

Fellow Travelers:
One of the pleasures of travel, and I know I'm repeating, is meeting fellow tourists on the journey. On the way home from Montmartre on the metro we met 2 sets of fellow travelers. First an older woman with 2 teens in tow asked us in broken English if we knew how to get to Versailles. We tried to help her and a stunning young blond woman overheard and helped out; good thing because we were like the blind leading the blind! It turns out the older woman and teens are from Argentina and the young woman is an au pair living here but from Germany. A little bit later, while we were on the train, I overheard a group of 3 women talking about where they were and where they were trying to go. I recognized the stop they were trying to find as one we had to pass so I struck up a conversation with them. They were here with a writer's group taking a literary themed tour but they were separated from their group and trying to make their way back to their hotel. The Eldest, our navigator, confirmed that they were going in the right direction. We exchanged cards so I hope we'll be able to keep in touch.

Tomorrow we bike in Giverny and see Monet's gardens!


Kevin said...

If you are going to flirt with Parisian men, you simply must bring me home a "stunning blond au pair".


Abbey Wood Takeaway London said...

i like your way of writing, and kevin u are partially right, not always.