Random TV Moment

We haven’t really watched any television since leaving the English-speaking countries.  This is usually just as well since we should probably be doing something productive like writing blogposts or watching the latest episode of Amazing Race on YouTube (internet permitting).  Nonetheless, I can’t help but do the obligatory once-through the TV channels once we are settled in the room.  On the continent, it’s usually a 60 second chore just to see if there is at least one English channel like BBC World News.  Then, we proceed to ignore the appliance but for the weather check in the morning if the internet is not working.

During my initial run through, I like watching a few seconds of each channel.  Normally, I am rewarded with some kind of American programming dubbed in French.  For example, today’s scan found that the French Cartman sounds fairly similar to his American counterpart.  In Ireland, I found that Sponge Bob knew Gaeltalk.  In Nice, we had a wacky deja vu moment…

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What's that category again?

Yeah, that’s the French Vannah White.  A couple more…

What's that E symbol?

What's that € symbol?

French Pat Sajak

French Pat Sajak

Madame, Monsieur, French Wheel of Fortune.

Playing High Roller in Monaco Baby!!

Before beginning our journey vagabonding around Europe, we knew we wanted to go to Monaco — Maylene’s “things-to-do-before-she-dies” list included playing a round of blackjack there and we wanted to visit a tiny country – we’ve missed them all so far except for Monaco!

When I began searching for a hotel, of course I found that they are all VERY expensive.  That’s why it was so nice to be able to use one of our Welcome Rewards nights to stay at the Fairmont Hotel Monte Carlo.  It is the #1 hotel in Monaco on TripAdvisor and ironically enough, I worked my Server Assistant butt off at the Brown’s Beach House restaurant of the Fairmont Orchid hotel in Hawaii many moons ago, so it was a nice bit of self-satisfaction to be able to stay at one of the properties – even if only because we earned a free night to do so.

The hotel was impeccable and the service excellent.  More than that though, we were super-impressed with our room which overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and included a balcony with table, 2 chairs, and chaisse lounge to really enjoy it.

the view from our balcony looking left toward Italy

the view from our balcony looking left toward Italy

Having “splurged” on a taxi to get there (rather than walking/public transit as we always do) — we had read in the marketing materials that it was situated on one of the F1 turns and it definitely was — so you had the most amazing cars driving around the turns, tires squealing – shifting gears — but the inside of the hotel was super quiet.  In fact, we didn’t notice until much later that our room was built on stilts driven into the water and that a multi-lane road ran underneath our hotel.  From our spot on the fifth floor, all we could hear was the crashing of the waves beneath us.  Perfect!

side view of the hotel on stilts over the water

side view of the hotel on stilts over the water

road running underneath the hotel - looks like a Project Gotham Racing map section!

road running underneath the hotel – looks like a Project Gotham Racing map section!

The in-house casino had just what we needed to check off that bucket list.  While there were only a few blackjack tables open and the cheapest was 10 euros per hand (we watched someone dropping 500+ euro per hand on Casino War — nuts).  Not only did we play – on the cheap table of course – but we ended UP 40 euros – primarily because Maylene ROCKS and racked up the chips, more than doubling her money – you do the math — yes, I lost most of mine — haha.  We quit playing when we (ok, really it was mostly me) became too tired at around 1:30 in the morning but made sure to catch the gorgeous sunrise before enjoying room service breakfast.  What luxury!!

Sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea

Sunrise over the Mediterranean Sea

Speaking of luxury — we saw some of the most humongous yachts in the Monaco port.  They were incredible.  I had to ask Maylene if they were cruise ships or yachts! =)

here's two of the "cruise ships" from where we stood on the dock

here’s two of the “cruise ships” from where we stood on the dock

here are those same two ships but closer for detail

here are those same two ships but closer for detail

hey look -- it's the Mickey yacht!

hey look — it’s the Mickey yacht!

check-out the name of the luxury yacht parked in Monaco's marina

check-out the name of the luxury yacht parked in Monaco’s marina

...sigh...

…sigh…

Museum Madness Part 3 – Versailles and Quai Branly

In the final entry in our three part series entitled Museum Madness, we explore the Palace of Versailles (sort of) as well as the culturally diverse museum Quai Branly.

I’d heard of Rick Steves’ free mp3 tours awhile back but completely forgot about them until right before Paris.  I was stoked to find that two of the iPhone apps, Paris Historical Walk and the Versailles Tour, were available as free downloads from Rick’s website.  Too cool.

According to Rick, if we only saw one palace in all of Europe, it should be Versailles, so we set off for the Palace of Versailles with our free tour and Paris Museum Passes.  We had to do some creative trip planning on the way there since our Metro passes did not cover the whole train ride, but no biggie– it was all a part of the adventure.  As we made our final approach by foot to the palace, we were impressed even from afar.  I could imagine being a peasant or country noble, awed by such a sight…

On Final Approach to the Palace

On Final Approach to the Palace

At the Palace Gates

At the Palace Gates

After getting through security and picking up an oh-so-helpful map (hear the sarcasm, people), we started our free audio tour.  The descriptions were very helpful in putting context into all of the rooms as none of the plaques or signs had any translations, despite the fact that most tourists were non-French speakers.  Of course, this is probably just to force you to rent the 7€  (10 on the weekends) audio guides.  With the exception of the British Museum, we have found that most are not worth the expense.  And yet, I digress–

Royal Chapel Entrance

Royal Chapel Entrance

The Versailles is indeed a very impressive complex.  Initially occupied with such opulence by King Louis XIV, the self-proclaimed “Sun King”, Versailles was part ego-maniacal, part nobility control.  Mistreated as a youth, Louis XIV was a shrewd politician and leader, forcing all his nobles to hold court at Versailles so as to distract them, allowing him to run the country as he wished.  The palace stayed in the family for only three more generations before being ransacked during the French Revolution.  The art went to the Louvre; the furnishings went to auction.

Stunning ceiling art... even better than the Sistine Chapel methinks

Stunning ceiling art... even better than the Sistine Chapel methinks

And herein lies the rub.  The palace is grand and impressive and mocked up well enough, but I thought it lacked character without the long-gone furnishings.  I found that I had seen better in other cities (the Hapburgs’ palace in Vienna comes to mind) for less.  Knowing what I know now, I would have been a little upset if it hadn’t been covered by the museum pass and I’d paid the full entrance fee (15€ at the moment).  There really wasn’t much to explore inside, and while we’ve heard the gardens (free to the public) are some of the most beautiful, the fall/winter doesn’t see much (blooming) there and most of the statues are covered up for the season.  Add to that the 30-45 minute ride from city center one way, and it kind of doesn’t add up.  Charity and I agreed that perhaps at 10€, maybe, but 15 seems kind of steep.

Part of the gardens which inspired The Mall in Washington, DC

Part of the gardens which inspired The Mall in Washington, DC

So we ditched Versailles only halfway through the garden part of Rick’s tour.  We wanted to hurry back to the city to squeeze in just one more museum on the pass.

We’d learned of the Quai Branly museum from its temporary exhibit at the Louvre.  The Quai Branly covers in depth a lot of the art missing from the Louvre:  Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and Asia.  We arrived just under two hours before closing, and right away, we knew the museum would interesting.  First, the building was very different from all the other museums we’d visited in Paris, built in a modern style that reminded me strongly of modern Pacific Northwest architecture– glass and natural light meeting wood and metal elements, creating a functional space.

Outside the Quai Branly with a famous landmark showing off behind

Outside the Quai Branly with a famous landmark showing off behind

The museum was also one of the best organized we’d ever visited with nearly everything displayed in glass cases in the middle of the floor, allowing you a 360 degree view of the artifacts.  Stuff that was in “storage” was in a couple of huge glass… towers?… neatly organized by serial numbers and allowing visitors to get a hint of what was not currently exhibited.  There were clever bench alcoves everywhere, some of which were equipped with interactive displays exploring some aspect of a native culture, art, or history.  Some were even in English.

Ho, Hawaiian!

Ho, Hawaiian!

As you walked through the different sections, your attention would occasionally be drawn to audio from a village in Africa or the South Pacific.  Most pieces did not have English descriptions, so we kind of cruised through and tried to figure out non-obvious objects.  We were lucky enough to catch a temporary exhibit of Iranian photographs– thought provoking and fuel for my Iran curiosity.

The Quai Branly was definitely one of my favorite museums thus far.  I would recommend stopping in even for a quick visit if you’re into art/native artifacts from outside of Europe, especially if it’s still covered by the Paris Museum Pass.

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Nice…it’s nice…

We were so happy to arrive in Nice after spending so much time in Northern Europe.  This part of the French Riviera is right on the coast and has a broad promenade with a pebble-beach where you can soak in the sun.  At least 10 degrees warmer than in Paris, we wore short-sleeves and loved the vacation from sweaters and scarves.

from our vantage point on the beach looking East toward Italy

from our vantage point on the beach looking East toward Italy

from the beach looking West as the sun set

from the beach looking West as the sun set

we began with shoes off and pants rolled up...

we began with shoes off and pants rolled up...

and stayed long enough to end with shoes on and pants down...

and stayed long enough to end with shoes on and pants down...

Nice has fun window-shopping (though everything closes at 7) and several theaters so we were lucky enough to find New Moon or Tentation (as it is known in France) two days before it is released in the States — sweet! It was subtitled in French but at least we learned a few new words!

a billboard advertising the movie in the Paris subway

a billboard advertising the movie in the Paris subway

We also had an in-depth conversation with former sailor in the French Navy, Phillipe (~55 years old).  He approached us while we sat on a bench and with cheap beer in hand (of course), proceeded to practice his “American” with us.  Apparently Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are his daily English tutors and let me just say – he had the accent down.  He put us to shame with his excellent skills and we admired his steady hand with the beer.  He’s traveled the North Atlantic and Indian Ocean with the French navy but he’s still 15 on the inside and sleeps with teddy bears.  Most surprising though was that he didn’t want anything from us – just to talk.  Totally random moment.  You just never know.

Where the Magic Happens

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Where the Magic Happens

Is there anything more magical than being in Disneyland on your birthday?  At any age, I contend there’s not.
We had just finished with a wonderful six days of touring Paris and decided to use one of our free nights from hotels.com to stay on the Disney resort at the Santa Fe hotel.  It is accessible to the park via convenient shuttle bus running every 12 minutes.  Perfect!  We weren’t sure when we arrived how many days of free tickets to the park we would have, so we were very happy to learn we had 3 days to explore the two parks.  The first day we focused on the Walt Disney Studio and the first thing Maylene convinces me to ride is the Aerosmith roller coaster.  Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t really care for roller coasters – especially the ones that do loops and cork-screws.  Take me on the kiddy rides any day!  So I decide to go into the coaster entry with her to keep her company and find out it does the crazy upsidedown stuff.  As we approached the front of the line, I seriously considered ducking out but then had my Amazing Race moment where I thought – if I was on the Amazing Race, would I do it?  The answer is, of course, yes because all these other people are doing it – must be okay.  So I did and I even rode it again.  Can’t say that I really care for these types of coasters, but I can handle them better now.  I rode every ride in the park except for the Tower of Terror but I don’t really think that counts.  =)  Space Mountain was definitely scarier in Paris than anywhere else I’ve been including a few corkscrews and a loop.  Maylene had a blast.  All of the pictures taken of me on any of the coasters shows me in sheer terror or quiet zen.  Only exception is to this rule is Big Thunder Mountain – we rode it like six times in a row at the end of my birthday because we wanted to squeeze every minute out of the tickets and Maylene wanted to do something that I really enjoyed and boy do I like Big Thunder Mountain – it’s also the best one I’ve been on with excellent design and a lot of pitch dark moments.  Fun!
We went all out for my special day – princess hat – lunch with the characters and when the little kid nearby celebrated his birthday with a cake, I joined in and pretended all the clapping and singing was for me! 😉  Good times!
Disneyland in Paris is very much like the one in Tokyo or California – doable in a few days and a lot of fun.  The way they made the train station terminate at the park entrance, right next to the shuttle buses made it perfect!  Great job logistically.
Now I guess we’ll have to make our way to Hong Kong and if the timing is right, maybe we can be there for Maylene’s birthday!

Is there anything more magical than being in Disneyland on your birthday?  At any age, I contend there’s not.

We had just finished with a wonderful six days of touring Paris and decided to use one of our free nights from hotels.com to stay on the Disney resort at the Santa Fe hotel (it’s the spend 10 nights in a crappy hotel and use your free night to stay in a fancy one plan).  It is accessible to the park via convenient shuttle bus running every 12 minutes.  Perfect!  We weren’t sure when we arrived how many days of free tickets to the park we would have, so we were very happy to learn we had 3 days to explore the two parks.

Happy Girls

The first day we focused on the Walt Disney Studio and the first thing Maylene convinces me to ride is the Aerosmith roller coaster.  Anyone who knows me, knows I don’t really care for roller coasters – especially the ones that do loops and cork-screws.  Take me on the kiddy rides any day!  So I decide to go into the coaster entry with her to keep her company and find out it does the crazy upsidedown stuff.  As we approached the front of the line, I seriously considered ducking out but then had my Amazing Race moment where I thought – if I was on the Amazing Race, would I do it?  The answer is, of course, yes because all these other people are doing it – it must be okay and there’s usually a million dollars on the line.  So I did and I even rode it again.  Can’t say that I really care for these types of coasters, but I can handle them better now.  I rode every ride in the park except for the Tower of Terror, but I don’t really think that counts.  =)  Space Mountain in Paris was definitely scarier than Tokyo, California, and Orlando with loops and corkscrews.  Maylene had a blast.  All of the pictures taken of me on any of the coasters shows me in sheer terror or quiet zen.

Only exception is to this rule is Big Thunder Mountain – we rode it like six times in a row at the end of my birthday because we wanted to squeeze every minute out of the tickets and Maylene wanted to do something that I really enjoyed and boy do I like Big Thunder Mountain – it’s also the best one I’ve been on with excellent design and a lot of pitch dark moments.  Fun!

Whhheeee...and just my speed!

Whhheeee...and just my speed!

We went all out for my special day – princess hat – lunch with the characters and when the little kid nearby celebrated his birthday with a cake, I joined in and pretended all the clapping and singing was for me! 😉  Good times!

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Disneyland in Paris is very much like the one in Tokyo or California – doable in a few days and a lot of fun.  The way they made the train station terminate at the park entrance, right next to the shuttle buses made it perfect logistically.

Now I guess we’ll have to make our way to Hong Kong and if the timing is right, maybe we can be there for Maylene’s birthday!

Museum Madness Part 2 – A&M, l’Orangerie, Pompidou

Side note:  just testing a new layout/theme for the website.  Let us know what you think either way– we’ll probably be experimenting for a while.

On the advice of a friend, we sought out the Musee des Arts & Metiers and Pascal’s Arithmetic machine.  Luckily, the museum was covered by the Paris Museum Pass, and wouldn’t you know it, the place had its own Metro stop.  Sweet!  The A&M covers all manners of science and inventions– vehicles, communications, machines (think: gears), computers, and mad scientist laboratories. This one was definitely a nice break from the usual works of art.  Minus the attitude on the way in, we had a nice time cruising through the various exhibits and especially liked the Chapel and Foucault’s pendulum.

Flying Contraption

Flying Contraption

Charity on the 1s and 2s, super retro stylie

Charity on the 1s and 2s, super retro stylie

My favorite Metro stop-- too cool

My favorite Metro stop-- too cool

Next up, we visited the Musee national de l’Orangerie.  The l’Orangerie is yet another museum housing works of the Impressionists, most notably wall-length murals (yes, plural) of Monet’s Water lilies.  OK, so just a bit of commentary on Monet’s obsession— err… “work”… with those water lilies.  Essentially, the guy built his house then created a huge water lily garden out back complete with Japanese bridge.  Then, he proceeded to paint the same freakin’ garden hundreds of times.  W…t…h…??  Once or twice, sure, that would be awesome and creative.  But seriously, hundreds of times??  What makes him less insane than, say, Van Gogh?  Yes, the latter ended up in the mental hospital, but at least he seemed to paint different stuff and didn’t get famous for painting the same thing over and over again.  I know some people are really into Monet, but I really don’t get it.  Aaaaah… art.

Anyway, the museum also had tons of works from other artists which really impressed us.  We were especially surprised to discover some of the Picasso’s pre-Cubist work downstairs.  This one was especially interesting to us, from his “blue period” (the color palette explains that well)…

The Embrace, Picasso

The Embrace, Picasso

The Centre Pompidou:  modern art.  Before coming to Europe, no other phrase sent me running for the hills faster than “modern art”.  Difficult to understand, usually just plain weird, I’m not usually a fan of the stuff, but as Rick Steves mentioned (paraphrasing here), after seeing so much religious art, going to a place where somebody smashed a piano and glued the pieces to the wall can be refreshing.  And it really was.  I didn’t get a lot of it, but there were a lot of thought-provoking pieces as well as a few bittersweet ones.

Posing on her special day on the giant calendar outside the Pompidou

Posing on her special day on the giant calendar outside the Pompidou

Pro-Women Artist -- duh

Pro-Women Artist -- duh

One more museum post to go– later!

Museum Madness Part 1 – Louvre and Orsay

Side note:  just testing a new layout/theme for the website.  Let us know what you think either way– we’ll probably be experimenting for a while.

Paris really is a beautiful city– from what little I remember from being above ground and outside.  As Charity likes to remind me, we spent most of our time either in museums or on the Metro getting to those museums.  🙂  And why not?  We– ok, mostly Charity– meticulously planned out our time in the city, researching which museums would be open on what days as they all had different days of closure and widely varying hours of operation.  We filled in Google Calendar with our plans.  After counting up the must-sees with the maybes, we found that we could actually get the Paris Museum Pass and do some damage with it.  We only had to go to four museums as well as the Palace of Versailles to make up the cost of a four day pass– and we got to cut to the front of most lines.  Usually, those passes make a profit by counting on the fact that people don’t really use them to their fullest extent.  I can proudly say that they definitely lost money on us.

The first museum we visited was the Louvre.  I was so very excited to go– this was the one place I knew I wanted to visit.  Holding over 30,000 pieces (not on display all at once, mind you), it is the largest art museum in the (Western) world and would take days to explore properly.  As it is, we spent about six hours spread over two days there.  On the first day, armed with Rick Steves’ Louvre iPod/iPhone app, we spent a good two hours covering all the great highlights like the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Wings of Victory, all conveniently located in the humongous Denon wing.  Just that wing alone is large enough to get lost in, and we did– several times.  Even skipping all the baby Jesuses and Jesus-on-a-sticks, you could spend way too much time wandering the rooms.  Awesome.

Pretty chipper for an early morning start to the Louvre

Pretty chipper for an early morning start to the Louvre

Random huge art on a landing

Random huge art on a landing

The next museum we visited was the Orsay.  We got a brief preview of the building while on our discount river cruise and were surprised to learn that the museum is located in an old train station.  Built in the late 19th/early 20th century, the station fell into disuse sometime in the 1940s and was going to be demolished in the 70s before being saved and converted to this museum…

One of the old train station clocks-- with a view of the Seine River

One of the old train station clocks-- with a view of the Seine River

The other train station clock. Lovin' the Rick Steves' iPod/iPhone app

The other train station clock. Lovin' the Rick Steves' iPod/iPhone app

Though not as large as the Louvre, the Orsay still held quite an impressive collection of works and picks up where the Louvre left off– around the mid-1800s.  That means there are a lot of Impressionist paintings– a period I didn’t like very much before visiting Europe but have grown to appreciate, especially after our visit to the British Museum in London.  I was lucky enough to have grabbed the Rick Steves’ app when it was still free months ago, and so we enjoyed a free guided tour of the place.  I liked the Louvre a lot, but I think I liked the Orsay better.  Well-organized and a bit laid back, it didn’t feel nearly as frantic as the Louvre.  The lack of camera-snapping super crowds probably had something to do with that, though. 😉

Aerial of the Orsay-- imagine trains running down the middle

Aerial of the Orsay-- imagine trains running down the middle

The one American painting we found

The one American painting we found

More posts to come on the other museums!

The Parisien Biggies

The Parisien Biggies

Eiffel Tower, River Seine Cruise, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, Latin Quarter
On our very first night in Paris, I dragged Maylene immediately off to the Eiffel Tower and we arrived at dusk, staying long enough to watch the sun set from the middle viewing level of the tower.  It was HUGE!  Absolutely overwhelming in height and base size.  I thought the elevators would take you straight up to the top like the Space Needle, but they actually go kind of diagonally, following along the curve of the legs of the tower. We didn’t go all the way up, mostly because of the very, very long second line to get there but had been told that the second level was the best to see the city with anyway.  It was too cool!  We were inside the tower at the top of the hour when the lights began to twinkle showing off for the tourists.  Just outside of the tower is the River Seine and a selection of cruises that are fantastic at night with all of the Napoleonicly large buildings lit up.  After disembarking from the cruise, we were treated to an even more spectacular light show with the tower showing off it’s myriad of colored lights set to music.  My mouth gaped open the whole time.
From the tower, the Arc de Triomphe looked absolutely enormous and I knew that we would have to see it close-up.  We headed over there one day after visiting the Louvre and arrived at about 18:15.  Luckily for us, it was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and they were doing a special honor for the tomb of the unknown soldier who rests at the monument.  It was inspiring to see all of the veterans paying respect to their comrade in arms.  Apparently they do a nice ceremony for the soldier every single day but we were lucky enough to come on a special anniversary.  It is huge by the way but I think that the emotions that filled the monument on that night were even bigger.
Our visit to Notre Dame coincided with Veteran’s Day in the US and in France.  It was really special to be there to see the soldiers preparing for the commemorative service and to be able to buy a poppy of rememberance from a retiree.  The cathedral itself is very impressive.  The many spires and gargoyles make it a joy to behold and we really liked the high gothic arches found in the interior as well as the mini-chapels dedicated to various saints.  We were really hoping to go to the Deportation Memorial just around the corner to recognize the 200,000 French Jews who were sent to concentration camps in Nazi occupied France.  Unfortunately the memorial was closed – maybe they were doing a special thing – oh well.
We spent a lot of time in Paris at large must-see sights and brilliantly interesting museums so we made sure to focus on at least a few neighborhoods to get a better sense of community.  Upon a friend’s recommendation, we visited the Sacre Couer/Monmartre neighborhood one afternoon and found it to be lovely.  We spent time at the neighborhood park just below the Sacre Couer church and watched the local children playing soccer – what ball control!  We only left because Maylene was blessed by a little sparrow and we decided to take the hint before his friends joined in.  We really liked all of the quaint stores and the cool sights laid out before us.  We even enjoyed what I called “crap alley” which is a street that leads to the Sacre Couer and is just filled with low-class souvenir shops and men trying to tie a bracelet on your arm so you have to pay them.  But – I have to say that the crepes were yummy!  Unfortunately they insist upon putting nutella in most everything but we managed to get away with a sugar dusting only and really liked it.  We walked back toward the Pigalle neighborhood and I was only too excited to see the real Moulin Rouge – windmill and all — fun!
We wandered aimlessly around the Latin Quarter after visiting Notre Dame — what a cool place.  Since the establishment of the Sorbonne University in the area in the 1300s (?), it has been a hotbed of revolutionary thought and wide-eyed university students challenging the status quo.  It got its name from all of the students originally speaking and writing exclusively in Latin.  Much of the area is filled with winding, cobblestone streets and tiny restaurants and shops but a lot of them have been paved over – intentionally by the government as a means to prevent the cobblestones from being used as projectile weapons in protest.  I love a little Bohemian, upstart neighborhood like that.

Eiffel Tower, River Seine Cruise, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, Sacre Couer, Latin Quarter

On our very first night in Paris, I dragged Maylene immediately off to the Eiffel Tower and we arrived at dusk, staying long enough to watch the sun set from the middle viewing level of the tower.  It was HUGE!  Absolutely overwhelming in height and base size.  I thought the elevators would take you straight up to the top like the Space Needle, but they actually go kind of diagonally, following along the curve of the legs of the tower. We didn’t go all the way up, mostly because of the very, very long second line to get there but had been told that the middle level was the best to see the city with anyway.  It was too cool!  We were inside the tower at the top of the hour when the lights began to twinkle showing off for the tourists.  Oh yeah – and we were only too happy to learn that Team America’s destruction of the tower was included in the video montage starring the iron behemoth.

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Just outside of the tower is the River Seine and a selection of cruises that are fantastic to take at night with all of the Napoleonic-ly enormous buildings lit up.  After disembarking from the cruise, we were treated to an even more spectacular light show with the tower showing off it’s myriad of colored lights set to music.  My mouth gaped open the whole time.

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From the tower, the Arc de Triomphe looked absolutely enormous and I knew that we would have to see it close-up.  We headed over there one day after visiting the Louvre and arrived at about 18:15.  Luckily for us, it was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall and they were doing a special honor for the tomb of the unknown soldier who rests at the monument.  It was inspiring to see all of the veterans paying respect to their comrade in arms.  Apparently they do a nice ceremony for the soldier every single day but we were lucky enough to come on a special anniversary.  The monument really is huge by the way, but I think that the emotions that filled the monument on that night were even bigger.

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Veterans honoring the tomb of the unknown soldier

Veterans honoring the tomb of the unknown soldier

We’ve had a lot of special moments like that.  In fact, our visit to Notre Dame coincided with Veteran’s Day in the US and in France.  It was really special to be there to see the soldiers preparing for the commemorative service and, of course, to be able to buy a poppy of rememberance from a retiree.  The cathedral itself is very impressive.  The many spires and gargoyles make it a joy to behold and we really liked the high gothic arches found in the interior as well as the mini-chapels dedicated to various saints.

The Cathedral for Mary

The Cathedral for Mary

Gothic interior of the cathedral - 3 stories high

Gothic interior of the cathedral - 3 stories high

We were really hoping to go to the Deportation Memorial just around the corner to recognize the 200,000 French Jews who were sent to concentration camps during Nazi occupied France.  Unfortunately the memorial was closed – maybe they were doing a special thing – bummer.

We spent a lot of time in Paris at large must-see sights and brilliantly interesting museums so we made sure to focus on at least a few neighborhoods to get a better sense of community.  Upon a friend’s recommendation, we visited the Sacre Couer/Monmartre neighborhood one afternoon and found it to be lovely.  We spent time at the neighborhood park just below the Sacre Couer church and watched the local children playing soccer – what ball control!  We only left because Maylene was blessed by a little sparrow and we decided to take the hint before his friends joined in.  We really liked all of the quaint stores and the cool sights laid out before us.  We even enjoyed what I called “crap alley” which is a street that leads to the Sacre Couer and is just filled with low-class souvenir shops and men trying to tie a bracelet on your arm so you have to pay them.  But – I have to say that the crepes were yummy!  Unfortunately they insist upon putting nutella in most everything but we managed to get away with a sugar dusting only and really liked it.

Sacre Couer's "Crap Alley"

Sacre Couer's "Crap Alley"

We walked back toward the Pigalle neighborhood and I was only too excited to see the real Moulin Rouge – windmill and all — fun!

Somebody's happy much...

Somebody's happy much...

We wandered aimlessly around the Latin Quarter after visiting Notre Dame — what a cool place.  Since the establishment of the Sorbonne University in the area in the 1250s, it has been a hotbed of revolutionary thought and wide-eyed university students challenging the status quo.  It got its name from all of the students originally speaking and writing exclusively in Latin.  Much of the area is filled with winding, cobblestone streets and tiny restaurants and shops but a lot of them have been paved over – intentionally by the government as a means to prevent the cobblestones from being used as projectile weapons against them in protest.  I love a little Bohemian, upstart neighborhood like that.

Latin Quarter - in an area not yet robbed of cobblestone...

Latin Quarter - in an area not yet robbed of cobblestone...

And Now We’re in… Belgium…

After Ireland and a one-night layover in Amsterdam, we headed over to Belgium to play tourist in Brussels and Bruges.  First up– Brussels.

Advance research told us that there was not much to see and do in Brussels, but we went anyway because we couldn’t secure “affordable accommodation” in Bruges right away.  No problem, we booked a cheap apartment-type place in Brussels just a short walk away from one of the major train stations.  We trekked around the city a bit, admiring the architecture everywhere, including the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

Heading towards the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

One side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

Another side of the Grand Palace

…and of course, the most senseless tourist site anywhere– the Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis - why is this a tourist spot again?

Manneken Pis – why is this a tourist spot again?

Ta DAH!  A little guy peeing!

Ta DAH! A little guy peeing!

…that’s right.  It’s a tiny statue of a little guy peeing into a fountain.  People travel from all over the world to take a picture in front of that thing.  We did it.  So did the huge group of Japanese tourists milling about in front of the little guy.  Apparently, they sometimes dress him up on special occasions, but he was nekkid when we were there.  Good times.

Ever since we started watching Rick Steves‘ show in Washington, we’d wondered if Belgian (“Flemish”) fries were really all they were cracked up to be.  After all, what we call “French” fries were supposedly invented in Belgium.  They are also different from the taters we know and love as they are fried not once but twice.

Our conclusion:  while good in theory, we found that the resting period after the initial cooking made the fries kinda stale.  Like refried fries.  The resting period is usually a mystery; you’re never really sure how long they were sitting there before you ordered them.  Ironically, we’d had some Flemish fries in Amsterdam and found that they were much better– probably because they were not allowed to rest for very long as the fry joints in Amsterdam were always really busy.

Brussels also happens to be the political center of the European Union, and being the political geeks we are, we were really excited to visit the EU Headquarters.  We’d heard that you could tour the facilities as well and maybe even catch a session in progress.  Yeah… well, we probably should have confirmed a few things beforehand.  We got there only to find it almost completely abandoned.  Apparently, we showed up on a holiday of some sort.  We saw more diplomatic representation in front of the Manneken Pis.  Heh.

After only two days, we were more than ready to leave Brussels.  It’s certainly a nice city– good transit, nice people, and all that.  But boring as heck.  Seriously.  So we headed to Bruges with higher hopes.

If you’ve ever seen the movie In Bruges, you already have a pretty good feel for the city.  And if you haven’t seen the movie, you should– not your average action/comedy/drama/hitman movie, for sure.  Here’s the trailer…

We saw the the film a while ago, so we had that in our heads when we arrived.  Unfortunately for us, the weather was crummy for most of our time there; kinda like the movie, actually, but with rain.

Random architecture in Bruges... and a crummy day

Random architecture in Bruges… and a crummy day

Bikes in a random Bruges square

Bikes in a random Bruges square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

The Belfry Tower in Market Square

Also adding to this aggravation was the fact that everything in the town center closed by 6PM– shops, grocery stores, restaurants– everything.  It was crazy.  You had to walk across town (OK, it’s not that big, but still) to get to restaurants, bars, and “night shops” that still had a pulse at 6:30PM.  It’s a good thing the hostel we stayed at had 1) a bar with a Belgian beer tasting every night and 2) a city tour based on the movie In Bruges.

The latter was definitely an interesting experience mainly due to Kai, our intrepid guide, originally from NYC.  After the tour, he was kind enough to invite all of us over to his apartment for dinner.  We all threw in some change for the groceries and proceeded to drink and talk stories with a very diverse group of people– Australians, Canadians, Americans, a Spaniard, and a Brasilian to boot.

The Belgian beer tasting:  if we take nothing else away from Belgium, we have learned this– they really do have the best beer in the world (Charity adds, “So far– I haven’t been everywhere yet” ;-)).  Supposedly, Belgium is the birthplace of beer, invented by monks.  There are still beers made by monks from centuries-old recipes called “Trappiste” beers, and according to Kai, they are the best because of all the love the monks put in.  Normally, that sort of statement would make me laugh, but then I tried some and… well, let’s put it this way:  I am not– by any stretch of the imagination– a beer drinker.  But those beers with their 8-11% alcohol-by-volume content would and did make me one for a few days.  I still think about that beer and can’t wait to find them again.  Trader Joes maybe?

Oh, and one more thing– what they say about Belgian chocolate is true, too.  Made fresh daily, Belgians buy their chocolate daily like other cultures buy their bread.  Unbelievably good stuff.

Cool canal complete with swans

Cool canal complete with swans

Sunbreak!

Sunbreak in Market Square!