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Trip Update: Prague

I’ve been pretty quiet on this trip aside from the sporadic facebook or twitter update. That’s mainly been due to the fact that I don’t like writing anything of substance on an on-screen keyboard, and unlike last year I did not bring my bluetooth keyboard with me in an effort to keep things as minimal and light as possible. Mission accomplished, BTW, this is the lightest I’ve traveled. The bag with everything I’m wearing/using fits comfortably on my back and into the overhead bin of any plane. And I can wear it for hours without issue.

I write this from Vienna, where the apartment we’re staying in happened to have a USB keyboard that I could plug into my tablet, so I’ll happily chug away the next couple of nights before bed providing some minimal details and pictures. I like to do this to help me remember what I’ve done, to. We travel for the experiences, so it’s best to commit them to memory. I’ve tried to keep the minutiae to a minimum. So, let’s begin with the first city on our trip, Prague.

We arrived in Vienna after a night of flying, and had a couple of hours to kill before our afternoon train to Prague left for Vienna, so we wandered around the area near the train station and grabbed a quick lunch. This actually worked out well for us, since it turns out the apartment we were staying in during the last part of our trip is *right there*, so the familiarity with the neighborhood helped us find it. But that’s the later part of the journey, and we’re not there yet. And thus, back to Prague.

Our train ride was long (4.5 hours) but relaxing. I had directions on how to find our Prague apartment from our host (we’re almost exclusively staying at places found on for this trip with only one night of hotel stay immediately preceding our flight home). Unfortunately, as has come to be the norm on our travels, not everything went according to plan. The directions would have been perfect, if not for construction making the tram take a different route and us getting off about 1 kilometer away from where we wanted to be.

I also had the wrong phone number saved for our host, so I couldn’t call him. I had no data service here, and couldn’t find a place with wifi, so we asked around for directions. The English of the people I asked or help was only marginally better than my Czeck (which was limited to please and thank you, at this point), but we got close. Our host called my phone when we were late (about 30 minutes past when we were expected) and he realized the construction messed us up, but he got us back on track and walked to meet us and walk us back to the apartment.

With that snafu out of the way, we were set. The next morning, I spent a little time trying to get a data SIM working in my wireless modem, but it was not working out and I decided that wifi was ubiquitous enough in that city we could get by without it. It worked out pretty well, too. We decided to employ that strategy almost universally.

Over the next few days, we did a bunch of sightseeing, though I don’t have a lot of photos to show off because it was really pretty dreary most of the trip and didn’t lend itself well to photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being there, but it just wasn’t generally something that my little digital camera was going to make worth looking at. I look forward to visiting when it’s not rainy.

Our adventures include:

* walking from new town to the castle quarter via Charles bridge. (many walks across the bridge, as our apartment was almost adjacent. It’s quite pretty.)
* climbing the hill to the top where the Prague castle is, checking out the church and other sights at the castle.
* visiting many a Christmas market, and having many a delicious hot wine (or other similar hot, alcoholic drink).
* riding funicular to Petrin, and climbing the 299 stairs up their mini Eiffel Tower
* discovering a local treat called honey cake (medovnik)
* touring the astronomical clock tower
* touring the museum of medieval art
* discovering people bring their dogs into restaurants with them, and having some surprising (and cute) dining companions at a delicious Thai place.
* walking the Havelska market
* visiting the Communism Museum
* visiting the tiny Mucha Museum (which I really enjoyed)
* walking through Jewish quarter
* having soooo many pilsners.

Oh, and I caught a cold. Not enough to keep me down, just enough to be an annoyance. But, boy, am I glad I packed my decongestant nose spray “just in case”. My recollections from past trips were that the cold meds over here are just not very effective for me.

And so endeth the whirlwind first stop on our trip. Traveling from 6PM Saturday (Chicago time) to 10PM Sunday (Prague time), then Monday – Thursday taking in what we could. I’ll post some pics once they’re done uploading and link them here.

Next installment, Bratislava, featuring so many stairs, a cute kitty, some wonderful hosts, and an awesome hockey game.

Dobrou Noc!

Monday through Thursday, France and England

Monday was our last full day in France. We started out by visiting the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, followed by the cathedral in town. Both very impressive sights to see if you’re in the area. The cathedral is simply breathtaking and enormous.

This took us to just about noon, at which point we hit the road to make our way to Calais, via a slight detour to visit the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel. This is a memorial set up to honor a regiment from Newfoundland, most of whom lost their lives in a catastrophic battle in WWI. Up until this, all the war-related visits we’d done were from WWII.

We *just* made it, getting there about 4:15 (it closes at 5), so we were just getting the last sunlight of the day as well. The memorial is beautiful, and it’s rather striking to walk through the trenches the soldiers fought in. There’s a visitor’s center with a good exhibit and lots of information that’s run by the Canadian government, and staffed by Canadian students working abroad.

Going there added about an hour to our driving, but it was worth it. We made it into Calais just around 7, and after a dinner in town we called it a night.

Tuesday, we did breakfast at the hotel, then dropped the car off at the ferry terminal. We checked in early enough we were able to take an earlier crossing than the one I’d booked — this worked out pretty well, since it prevented us from navigating the tube with our luggage during rush hour. As it is, by the time the ferry crossing to Dover and train from there to London was done, it was around 3:45 (we gained an hour in crossing from the continent as well). As it worked out, we got to our hotel just around suppertime. So after dropping our bags, we hit a pub for a pint, then hit a Wagamama for supper.

Wednesday we set out to do something we’d not yet done in London — see a play in London’s West End (the London equivalent of Broadway). We’d had our sights set on "Jeeves and Wooster in Absolute Nonsense", as it was starring Steven Mangan, someone whose work in the show "Episodes" we quite liked. Plus it was getting very good reviews. So we got our tickets for the matinee showing (very nice seats, 7 rows back, center). At this point, we discover Mangan was suffering from a bout of pneumonia and was limited to doing one show a day. This, no matinees. Crap.

That being said, his stand-in was fantastic, the rest of the cast (all two of them) were just spectacular, and we thought it was a very funny show and a great experience. Lots of fun. After the show, we hit one of our favorite pubs (Ye Olde Mitre) for a couple of pints.

Our Wednesday night activity was to visit the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and do something neither of us had really done since we were both school age — go ice skating. What a blast! We wee both very cautious at first, but it came back to us. I managed the whole hour without once falling (woohoo!), and Tisha only fell once due to her being brave and trying to pick up something someone had dropped on the ice.

Thursday, we started the day by checking out the Selfridges department store and their Christmas displays. We met up with our friend Ben for lunch and beer at another of our favorite pubs, the Bree Louise. Great beers, great pies. Yummy.

After lunch, we braved a bit of a wind and rain onslaught and headed to the National Portrait Gallery. Finally, a quick dinner at a local pub was in order. We were nearby a place called the "Maple Leaf", a Canadian-themed pub. Canadian flags everywhere, hockey being shown on the TV (albeit a game from the start of the week), and Canadian beer (among other more traditional offerings). It was a neat experience.

Tomorrow’s our last day here. We’ll visit the Tate Britain gallery, hit another favorite pub, and play it by ear from then on. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Some photos from the above adventures:

A handful of photos from a visit to the cathedral in Bayeux, and the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Normandy and Brittany

On Friday morning, we left Paris by train, making our way to Rennes where we would begin our driving journey.

After a comfy train ride, we arrived in Rennes and hopped across the street to our hotel (Le Hôtel Bretagne), which really couldn’t be more convenient. We spent the afternoon walking around the historic old town section of the city, riding their single metro line to get there. (It’s really more like an airport automated tram than a subway, but it was cheap and convenient.)

The old own had a lot of charm. We wanted to check out the old church in town, but just about every entrance was filled with drunk hobos, so we opted to walk the streets instead. We ate lunch at a little kebab/sandwich place, and stopped at a nice bar with a good selection of Belgian beers. I had a Kasteel Brune, while Tisha had a faro. Both were excellent.

After our fill of window shopping and enjoying the old architecture, we headed back to our hotel to recharge, then hit a nearby cafe/restaurant for an excellent supper. The food and service were both top notch. I recommend Café Noir if you’re in the area.

Saturday morning after a continental breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and walked across the street to pick up the rental car. We got a little Seat Mii until Tuesday morning, which will be our chariot for the next few days. It’s a cute little car that’s fun to drive. With my phone and a wireless modem, we’re not going to get lost. Seriously. 🙂

It got us to our first stop without incident, Le Mont Saint-Michel. We visited this the first time we were in France, but the weather wasn’t very good and I was not enjoying the hill/stair climbing.

We had a great day for it, as the sun was shining, and the hill and stairs were no issue! Yay!

After enjoying the beautiful locale, we headed back to the car and drive north into Normandy. We decided to make Bayeux our base, and upon arriving into town, eventually found a hotel that was both open and had a room for the next two nights. I cannot day enough good things about this hotel. Le Hotel Mogador is simply an incredibly friendly and very reasonably priced place to stay. The continental breakfast is simple, but perfect. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, we were off to storm the beaches of Normandy. Our first stop was Juno Beach, the site of the Canadian-led part of the D-Day offensive. There’s a great museum there that was set up in 2003 by Canadian veterans. Following the museum, we walked to the beach itself, then drove to the nearby Canadian cemetery where the many casualties of that effort are buried. The cemetery is beautiful and worth a visit.

After a quick picnic lunch in the car, we drove to Arromanches to visit a couple more museums and see an important beach in the offensive. There’s a neat 360 degree theater with a movie that really sets the tone of what happened during the first 100 days of the invasion. You also get a great view of the beach and the remains of the temporary Port Winston, a port that was secretly built in England, towed across the channel, and was installed within days of D-Day.

There’s a museum dedicated to the landing and the building of the port. It’s simply amazing what they were able to accomplish, and it allowed the allies to get supplies and equipment to the front quickly.

We originally wanted to also visit Omaha Beach, but we were losing the sun by then (sunrise at 8:30, sunset at 5), so we drove back to town.

I really enjoyed this visit to the region. The country roads are a pleasure to drive, and the towns are just beautiful.

Tomorrow we check out and make our way to Calais with a detour to visit The Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

Pictures! Friday, Saturday: There’s a sideways pic in here I need to rotate.

Normandy. Panoramic pictures of the Juno Beach center and Port Winston, plus a photosphere of the Canadian cemetery that may or may not work in your browser.

Wednesday and Thursday in Paris

Wrapping up our stay in Paris, I noticed I forgot to tell a story that happened to us on our arrival to Paris.

I try not to be a gullible person, but I am often too trusting of strangers. It’s a failing of mine. It’s how I managed to get scammed out of $120 in NYC for counterfeit tickets to a hockey game. But that’s a horrible story, since it involved me being stupid and losing money. So I’ll tell about smart me.

Smart me is the one who travels abroad. Something about being in a city in a foreign (to me) country puts me on my guard, and I have an inherent distrust of most everyone. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve read enough guides and advice to remind of the fact that someone’s always looking to take tourists’ money, especially when they can abuse a language barrier.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I managed to avoid getting scammed by an overly aggressive taxi driver in Moscow, just by being inherently distrustful and assertive in saying no.

So, on Sunday afternoon as we wandered into the train station, my first mission was to get some transit tickets for our week in the city. I figured I’d try the automated machine first. These machines had an "English" button, so I could happily traverse its menus in my native tongue. I had just about determined that this machine did not dispense what I was looking for when a guy wearing a lanyard with some sort of SNCF (French rail company) markings on it asked if I needed assistance. I said I was looking for the 5 day Paris Visit pass. (Sidenote, this pass may not be the best value unless you plan to do a lot of hopping on and off buses and trains – get a 10 pack of single tickets called a carnet if you’re only going to ride once or twice a day.)

The guy starts pressing buttons on the machine, backing out of the English menus and into the French menus. Things don’t look quite right, but at this point I’m still kind of trusting his pseudo-credential of the lanyard and something with the SNCF logo on it inside the badge holder. I try my credit card to pay for the ticket, and (as I completely expected), it wouldn’t work. Automated machines here will only take a credit card if it has a chip and pin, and American credit cards, by and large, do not have that.

He was also expecting my card not to work, and said "I’ll buy it and you can pay me cash". I wave him off, but he quickly pulls out his H&M card (yes, the department store), sticks it in the slot, and acts like he’s successfully paid (even though the screen is showing the same error as when I tried to use my card). See, the language barrier would probably work on most, but having grown up in the Canadian school system, I’m actually minimally functional in French. Certainly enough to see this guy is bullshitting me, especially when he pulled out the little "ticket" from the machine and tried again to get me to pay him cash for it. The "ticket" was just a receipt showing the canceled transaction. He lost all credibility when he pointed at his lanyard and badge holder (which I was now convinced had a fold-up SNCF system map in it) and said "It’s okay, I work here!"

I told him I would go over to the counter and walked away. By the time I reached the counter 10 seconds later, he was gone from the area. Victory!

On with the trip details!

Wednesday was the Louvre.

That’s it. The entire day. That place is enormous. Wednesday is one of their late days when they’re open until almost 10PM. Did we ever take advantage of it. First, we hit the must-see masterpieces, such as the Venus de Milo (along with other Roman and Greek statues), and the Mona Lisa (in French, La Jaconde). We couldn’t see the Winged Victory of Samothrace as it was under restoration. A shame, I’d have liked to have seen that. Look it up on Wikipedia, it’s quite impressive.

After checking out the must-sees, and having a light lunch in their cafe, we embarked on a bit of an exploration, just trying to cram in the stuff that interested us as best we could. They have a great collection of Dutch paintings, including a number of Rembrandt works. We also checked out their impressive collection of Objets d’Art, along with the Napoleon III Apartments. These rooms are downright breathtaking. Finally, to finish up the day, we strolled through the collection of Egyptian antiquities.

All-in-all, a full and satisfying day. We finished it off with dinner at a cafe near the museum, then back to the apartment to do some laundry.

After a bit of a mishap/misunderstanding with the laundry in the apartment (it was supposed to be a washer/dryer, but that was being repaired and the replacement was a washer only), we got to bed fairly late and exhausted. Our plan was to try to do Versailles on Thursday.

Thursday came, and I was far too tired to get up early enough to make Versailles a worthwhile trip, so we put it on the list for next time, and decided a down day wouldn’t be a bad thing. We slept in a bit late, then just toured the city by bus and foot, walking through various neighborhoods and soaking it all in. It was actually a really great day, and I’m glad that’s how we spent it. We did lunch at a nice Italian cafe between the apartment and the Eiffel Tower. We checked out the shops in the Montmarte area, I picked up some wine for later in the trip, and we finished things off with a sushi dinner back in our home base neighborhood.

Tonight, we’ll pack up our things, and tomorrow morning it’s off to the train station for the next phase of our trip. We’ll catch a train to Rennes tomorrow, and spend the night there. Then Saturday we’ll pick up our rental car and spend the next three days driving around Normandy and the surrounding area. Our room in Rennes is booked for tomorrow night, our room in Calais is booked for Monday night. The other two nights are up to our whims. Should be fun!

And now… pictures!

Forgot to include pictures

So here’s a sample from the past few days.

Paris, Sunday through Tuesday

Been busy. Lots of fun activities since arriving on Sunday evening.

We settled ourselves into our little one bedroom apartment in the Grenelle neighborhood of Paris, in the 15th arrondissement. We’re about ten minute’s walk to the Eiffel Tower from here. You can see it from the street before coming into our building.

Our first night we ate some dinner at a nearby cafe and grabbed some supplies to take advantage of the fact that we have a kitchen (Paris is not a cheap city to eat in).

Monday was our "walk around the city" day. I picked up a SIM for our little wireless modem so we could have some data on our phones, had some coffee (mmm) and made our way to the Champs-Élysées to wander the streets and shops.

To our delight, a Christmas Market was up and running when we got off the metro. So we got to explore that, and I had a cup of glühwein (or three). I just love Christmas markets. Well, really, I love Christmas, but this is one of my favorite parts of it. So we got to stroll along, checking out the little huts, listening to various Christmas songs (of which every single one was English), watch people skate on the little ice rink, and generally just enjoy a cold, wintry day.

Thanksgiving isn’t a thing here, so they’re in full-on Christmas mode here. Though I guess back in the U.S. it’s been non-stop Christmas since Halloween. Or maybe Labor Day.

After walking to the end of the street, we were at Place Charles de Gaul, which is where the Arc de Triomphe sits. We’d visited this before, but this time I was less than half the mass I was the first time. While climbing 240+ steps up 50 meters was something I was entirely unwilling to do back then, this time I jumped at it.

What a victory when I reached the top without stopping to rest, and didn’t have sore legs nor was I out of breath. Great views from up there.

We made our way back down, then strolled back toward the metro to take in an evening cruise along the Seine.

The boats departed from just behind the Eiffel Tower, so we hopped off the metro at the Trocadero, which just offers the best and possibly most iconic view of the tower.

We got to the boat pretty much just as it was ready to leave, and spent the next 90 minutes enjoying the views of Paris at night. So many iconic buildings and landmarks. Did you know along the Seine there’s not only a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty, but there’s also a miniature replica of the flame elsewhere?

Finally, we stopped off for some pizza before calling it a day. Full day, lots of walking, and some good stair climbing. Good practice for Mont St-Michel which is coming up this weekend.

Today, we had no solid plan short of getting to see Sainte-Chapelle, a chapel near Notre Dame with some amazing stained glass windows. We missed the morning entrance due to a late start, and I hear it’s so much better when the sun is beaming through in the morning. Of course, not a whole lot of sun is happening here these days, but it was still pretty even with only an overcast afternoon sky to provide lighting. (Alas, two of the big Windows were covered up as they were undergoing restoration.) Got a neat 360 photo of it. Worth checking out.

We walked along the streets of the island, and eventually found ourselves in front of Notre Dame cathedral. It was there we discovered a concert of 13th century Gregorian music was going to be held that night. We kept that in our back pocket as an evening option, and we continued to explore the city.

We happened across a cute section of town called Village Saint Paul in the Marais neighborhood. Many cute shops in this little village within a city. Gorgeous old buildings form the walls as little alleys and walkways open up paths inside to pretty courtyards ringed with shops.

We rested at a cafe/bar and had a glass of this year’s Beaujolais nouveau, a young wine that is released every year on the third Thursday of November (not even a week ago). I enjoyed it. Apparently, the release is a big deal, where people line up to get their first taste our bottle at one minute after midnight on release day.

After our wine, we decided to check out the Christmas Market at night when it would be more lively. But first, we rode the Roue de Paris, a huge Ferris wheel set up at the base of Christmas Market on the Place de la Concorde. We got excellent views of the market, the Champs-Élysées, L’Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and other landmarks.

The crowds were bigger at the market, everything was lit up, it was great. After years of singing about roasting chestnuts over an open fire, I finally actually tried some (Marrons Chaud as they’re called here). Yummy!

Around 7:30 we started back toward Notre Dame and caught the concert in the cathedral.

I’m not a religious person by any stretch, but something about hearing ancient music like that echoing in a huge Gothic cathedral is just hypnotic. It felt very Christmassy. I quite enjoyed it.

It was around 11 by the time we got back to our part of town, so we grabbed some Chinese food to go and ate at the apartment.

Wednesday’s main event: the Louvre.