Tag Archives: Europe

Europe Part III: Lyon & Barcelona

Lyon
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Traboules, I was told, were what we should look at. So, we’d see a sign, an open door or a lion’s head, and we’d walk through, peer at the courtyard around us. We’d cross the bridge over to Presqu’île for dinner, with its narrow alleys and stair-ed walkways bringing you higher and higher above the rest of the city. We bicycled around the city and one evening, went to the best restaurant called Le Comptoir du Vin where we feasted on a salad that was not called a salad but came with beautifully crisp roasted potatoes, blue cheese, and prosciutto draped on top as well as pork in a crème sauce. We wandered through Parc Tete D’Or by foot and by bicycle—their zoo was delightful, with a leopard crashing about in the undergrowth of his lair and deer that wanted to befriend us. At the Velodrome, there was a race happening and we also ran into an outdoor concert of xylophones (or were they glockenspiels?) and stayed for their last song.

P1130276There were Roman ruins galore and free admission for some reason at the museum by the ruins in Fourvière. The basilica there was beautiful, full of shining colored mosaics on the walls.We rode to the Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône meet, past buildings that looked as though they belonged to the future, past a tributary of the river on which some contestants seemed to be battling it out with inflatable rafts and obstacles, to the little spit of land that led straight into the water. Then we slid down this structure by the museum there that all the kids were sliding down, including young mothers with small babies. It left your pants and hands white. There were croissants every day and in the end, we were sad to leave. P1130279 P1130286

Barcelona
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Gaudi and even more Gaudi.
Sagrada Familia, of course, with a trip up the tower to see the Glory facade but there wasn’t much of a view from the top. A shame that there was graffiti inside the narrow circular stairwell, so that certain windowed areas had to be encased in glass. There was Park Güell and Casa Vicens, Casa Batlló and La Pedrera. For the last few, we rode bicycles through the neighborhoods around the houses, down one-way alleys that opened up to little hidden squares where the community gathered with kids playing and the occasional market.
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The first few days, we were unimpressed by Barcelona’s architecture—we’d stayed in El Pablenou, very near Parc de la Ciutadella, which was dominated by rather dreary high-rises although Born and El Raval had more interesting buildings. The restaurants around the area reminded me of Mexico and Costa Rica, dingy little storefronts with a host of tables outside on the sidewalk. A menu mostly of sandwiches and platters with eggs or french fries. We went to the beach our first day—the water was cool but we got acclimated to it enough to swim for a bit before we walked down the boardwalk and watched a bunch of shiny tanned men working out on the public pull-up bars. Fascinating to see a whole routine being done on the beach. A vegetable paella for dinner with a surprisingly delicious pasta bolognese as a starter (yes, a rather weird combination but it was all tasty!) Another day, we went to Mercado de La Boqueria with its huge assortment of vendors—fresh juices (although a bit watered down, I thought!) and fruits, cones of  jamon Iberico, tons of seafood, spices…I realized after the fact that I didn’t take a single photo of the market but it’s a crowded one. At least I have one photo of my jamon!P1130297P1130321IMG_20150926_112702

The Mercé Festival was also happening during the time we were in Barcelona. We tried to see the human pyramid event but the alleyways all around the square were mostly all blocked and the crowds just kept carrying us away from the square—we weren’t the only ones who A) were very confused about the correct direction and B) just didn’t make it. What was a bit frustrating though were the amount of strollers. When going down a narrow, crowded alley, it’s hard not to get a bit annoyed with those tourists who had brought strollers to try to see the event. We did get to see the closing fireworks show at Plaça d’Espanya which was quite fun with the magic fountain, the music, and the fireworks. We’d actually gone to Montjuïc during the day, up to the castle and found ourselves watching the Catalan Folk Festival featuring performers from Estonia, Romania, Colombia, and elsewhere while eating freshly fried churros. The castle was more of a fort but did have a lovely view over the shipping container yards and the ocean and a soundtrack of some very chatty seagulls. We decided to walk down rather than take the funicular and found ourselves in the gardens, meandering down little paths that showed us musical steps and fountains. IMG_20150923_181436 IMG_20150923_173937

Another day, we took the train out to Montserrat and then the cable car up for about 20 euros combined. These are very different mountains from Chamonix, bulbous and finger shaped, but seemed quite great for the climbers we saw everywhere since the rock was so rough and had so many nooks and crannies. We took the long route starting from the monastery to Sant Miquel to Sant Joan then eventually to Sant Jeroni. Most of the trek was very pleasant and fairly easy with large, well-marked paths and then steps up the exposed mountainside to Sant Jeroni although the path back from Sant Jeroni back to Montserrat was mostly steep and narrow stairs (which is probably why the map indicated that it was one way! But there were a few people coming the wrong way up, maybe because they didn’t want to trek all the way to Sant Joan first.) IMG_20150925_131850 IMG_20150925_132421

Europe Part II: Geneva & Saint Genis-Pouilly

Geneva & Saint Genis-Pouilly

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Pizza with a drink on the waterfront in Geneva costs 20 swiss francs so instead, we go for hot chocolate and people-watch on the square. The water fountains are actual fountains—lions gushing water from their mouths or faucets so that you have to bend your head down to drink. All over are signs for watches and cars. Later, A tells us that employees at the UN and the other major organizations in Geneva can receive a 40% discount on BMWs. The tram takes us all the way out to the French border where we find that the reception desk at CERN is closed. Thankfully, the gas station attendant across the street takes pity on us and lets us use the phone.

A & S live in an identity-confused little town with both quaint old French houses in white and brown and big apartment blocks like The Boat. In the dark, we walk down a backyard trail that leads to the town and milk the tin cow, a machine that sells milk and bottles for the milk 24 hours a day. A says it is the only thing open 24 hours. We pass the pommist’s window. He only sells pommes, so both regular pommes (apples) and pomme de terre (potatos.) Unfortunately, we never get a chance to meet him. Saint Genis-Pouilly is a 3 boulangerie town which is quite good since they take turns with their days off. On our last hike in the area, ijl and I had walked to Thoiry, a purported 1 boulangerie town and of course, it was closed. But a friendly lady had directed us to the tea room by the train station that also sold pastries & sandwiches. So what made it not a boulangerie? Perhaps the seating area. Most boulangeries we’d seen in France were all to-go establishments (or takeaway as it’s called in Britain.)

The next morning, we took the Y bus all the way to the airport but didn’t realize that the bus only collected its fare in coins. Luckily, the bus driver told us not to worry about it. From the airport, we booked our easyjet bus ride to Chamonix and half an hour later, we were two of three passengers on the bus. The day had started out rainy but by the time we reached Chamonix, only a light drizzle was left. The mountains rose up all around us, on one side, snow-capped Mont Blanc but the cable car up on that side was closed due to weather. Instead, we took the cable car up to Planpraz and hiked the TMB trail from there, always with a view of Mont Blanc although its tip was covered with clouds.   P1130162  P1130179 P1130184

The trail changed as we walked it, from Planpraz and spiraling around eventually to Brevent, from scrub and grass to pure rock. A marmot peeked out from the rocks around Brevent. Crows soared overhead. Tiny flowers dotted the trail. There was a deep blue lake whose surface sunlight glimmered off of. And then the descent down from rock to meadow to forest, a curving trail filled with rocks. In the forest, an abundance of different varieties of mushrooms, the first we saw a huge red toadstool that looked as though it belonged in a fairy tale. We ran down the narrow trail, slipping and sliding on the rocks, the ground giving way beneath our feet and arrived back in town by 6. Our bus back was late to arrive but we were the only passengers.
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The day after dawned rainy but A took ijl and I to Annecy for its lake and cute medieval town center complete with canals and castle. We had Breton crepes by the canal served in a very swiss restaurant and watched the swans swimming. By the time we’d wandered around the entire historical area, the clouds drifted away, except for one that hung out in the middle of the mountains that were suddenly unveiled.

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Then a quick tour of CERN and into Geneva for a dinner of thai food, sitting by the lighthouse at the edge of a dock on Lake Geneva, haunted by the soft quacking of the ducks.

To the Jura the next morning with our early hike to Thoiry. The path was steeply uphill although we were led astray by a fake path that cut past beehives and into meadows were cows had left their mark. We had originally planned to get up to Le Reculet, the 2nd highest peak in the Jura but realized we’d misjudged timing and effort when we reached Le Tiocan and started up a path that was all rock and incredibly steep. Not the most pleasant climb so we cut our losses and headed into Geneva to catch our train to Lyon.

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Hey guys! I’m actually in Shanghai right now after getting in late last night. It’s the October national holiday here so everything’s pretty 热闹 (exciting and lively!) with tons of people crowding the Bund and Chinese flags everywhere—in hair, in the sky, in windows. Early this morning, I saw a bunch of photographers following an old man with a giant Chinese flag kite and wondered if he was famous but nah, I think it’s just because he has a flag kite. I do love the kite-flying here though. P1130332

Europe Part I: London & Paris

London

In London, bees are allowed inside pastry display cases to taste the wares. Would you like a bee with your cinnamon roll? Here, take three. D names the birds for us in Regents Park—wood pigeons, coots, moorhens.We climb up to sit in front of bronze lions in Trafalgar Square but cannot climb onto their slick backs. The double decker buses make you feel as though you’re running over just about everyone. B+D bring us to Chinatown for bubble tea and jianbing as though we were in China and not London after a more traditional meal of fish and chips where I decide I like ijl’s haddock better than my cod and the tartar sauce is surprisingly sweet. And a nighttime view of Big Ben and Parliament. And clouds with a heartbeat within Covent Garden. P1130060 P1130052 P1130059

The next day, by the London Eye, the most aggressive street performer ever with a bullhorn and a request not to leave until after the finale. And a 5 pound charge, of course. We explore the British Museum and Tate Modern, always free. Cranes crown the skyline of London—I count fifteen then stop because there are still more. After walking over Tower Bridge and past the Tower of London, touts on Brick Lane beckoned us for dinner, ask if we’re hungry. The true answer is yes. The correct answer is probably no. But we say yes anyway and we’re led into, not the restaurant we said yes to, but to another, connected through passageways between dining room and down the stairs where we listen to bankers discussing their salaries which, surprisingly, are lower than we’d expected unless we heard wrong. We get thalis, one vegetarian and one not. The chicken tikka is the best, in my opinion, along with the lamb curry. Ijl likes the tikka masala which is different from ones I’ve had in the states but maybe too creamy for my taste. P1130067 P1130073 P1130077 P1130079

Then there’s brunch with B+D the next morning and a walk along Little Venice, small canals lined with houseboats. Most carry sticks and broken panels of wood, perhaps to heat the boats during the winter? Atop some are full gardens and bicycles lying upon their sides. Then Portobello Road Market with a crush of people buying pina coladas in pineapples and supposedly, antiques as well. And a quick ride to St. Pancras Station for our Eurostar train to Paris. P1130081

Paris

We stay in an adorable studio on Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement, a street that curves around a plaza so it is easily recognizable on a map. Our first night, we get crepes at Les Embruns, made of buckwheat, and the crème brulee I get is full of vanilla flavor but the sugar top isn’t crispy the way I like. In the morning, a market starts up with antiques vendors in the plaza and fruit & vegetable sellers on the streets. I get a pint of tiny Charlotte strawberries to go with our chocolate croissants, sweet and just right for 1.5 euros. We start out late but wander through the gardens by the Louvre up to the Grand Palais where they’re holding a fine art & design fair. Pay our 10 euros and enter the glass canopied venue with stalls and stalls of furniture, glass, jewelry, and other forms of art from around the world. P1130088 IMG_20150913_084958

It’s a stormy day but thankfully, our host lent us an umbrella of rainbows to take with us to see the cathedral at Notre Dame. Along the way, there are gold covered statues atop buildings and bridges, ornate in a way you don’t see in the U.S., like the temples in Thailand covered with gold leaf. The cathedral is beautiful, of course, but crowded. It’ll be a pattern here in Europe, these beautiful, crowded cathedrals and basilicas. We take the bridge over to the smaller island on the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, for ice cream at Berthillon where the flavors are so vibrant, it seems more like gelato than ice cream. What flavors? Pear & mango & ground peach.
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For dinner, Le Trumilou for duck confit & chicken in a tarragon sauce. A bottle of red wine. I order the charcuterie for my appetizer which turns out to be a bit of a mistake—all patés, one of which has a very jelly-like texture. The duck confit comes with potatoes that are perfect, so crispy and smelling of herbs. IMG_20150913_181012 IMG_20150913_181006 We leave the umbrella by accident and ijl has to go back to get it. And we learn that Brooklyn has followed us to Paris. IMG_20150913_193212

And then there is the Louvre. We take the lesser known entrance by the subway & mall yet there’s still a long line that snakes through the mall. I ask a Chinese tourist in Mandarin whether it’s the line to buy tickets. Funny how it feels more natural to ask a Chinese tourist than a local but my high school French is pretty lacking. We spend hours at the Louvre, watch other tourists take photos of the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo, see the tablet with the code of Hammurabi engraved upon it, go through the sculpture gardens for cherubs force-feeding goats in exquisite detail. Wander through its foundations as a fortress and go through its ostentatious rooms of Napoleon III and Louis XIV. In the Islamic art section, there are models of art for the blind that you can touch. Museums make me want to touch everything because you’re not allowed to touch anything. P1130096 P1130095

We take out bikes through the Velib bike share system and ride them all the way to the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower only has one area open with a long line and when we get to the front, we’re told that it was only for the lift. The cashier on the other side for the stairs had only just opened while we were waiting but our cashier takes pity on us and lets them know that we’re coming through. The stairs aren’t too difficult actually; we take them up to the 2nd floor before we take the lift up. On the way, we see the lift with its pseudo elevator beneath it holding a fake conductor on the side. Very odd. We are on the topmost level of the Eiffel Tower as twilight blends into night. The wind howls on one side so we go around to the other, pointing out the landmarks we’d seen. P1130130

In the morning, we bike around the Sorbonne and get macarons at Pierre Hermé. I lose my sunglasses while leaping over a curb (we ride dangerously) but otherwise, the bicycling is wonderful compared to NYC. There are bike lanes everywhere and drivers notice bicyclists. Better than taking the subway which, although the trains seemed quick and efficient, the stations smelled of urine. Then it’s off to Geneva!