Friday, September 30, 2011

A Day Trip to Versailles

Versailles was beautiful and an easy day trip from Paris, but it obviously didn't make much of an impression. In the 38-page journal I wrote during the two-week trip, I dedicated exactly one paragraph -- 6 lines -- to Versailles.

The visit to the palace itself was so-so -- gigantic and lavish to be sure, but so crowded as to make us feel like heads of cattle on our way to the slaughterhouse.

The grounds, however, were immense and, in some places, completely empty. We wore out our feet getting lost in the garden paths (literally getting lost -- it took as a while to find civilization again) and finally finding Marie Antoinette's estate and the Petit Trianon.

Marie Antoinette's estate was my favorite part of the visit. From what I understand, the estate was Marie Antoinette's escape from palace life, and today it seems like an overgrown dollhouse, a little dreamy and a little unreal. This part of Versailles seemed worlds away from the palace -- no sheep or batches of bunnies there.

Versailles, only 40 minutes from Paris, was a cinch to get to. I'm glad we went, but I'm sure I would have enjoyed it more with some French history in my background. Until I get that, I'm not sure I would return.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Sweet Scent of NYC Flowers

New York City stinks, and I mean that in only the most literal sense.

Garbage. Grease. Exhaust fumes. It's always a great treat the one or two times a year I just happen to walk by a Bay Ridge home with a yard the size of a postage stamp at the exact right time -- just after the grass is mowed and I get a whiff of the closest thing we've got to country air.

New Yorkers do, however, have another more common respite from the assaults on their noses. Many bodegas and corner stores line bouquets of flowers for sale along the sidewalk, tempting passersby with their bright colors and sweet smells. I've gotten only one -- as a gift from one of Paul's friends when he came to our Midwestern-themed party in February -- and it lasted a surprisingly long time. By carefully trimming the stems, changing the water and throwing out the wilted blooms, the bouquet lasted at least a week.

No one's going to mistake New York for a greenhouse, unless, that is, you're referring to the sweltering summertime heat. But a quick whiff of something nice on the streets of Manhattan is rare to come by and much appreciated.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Adventures at the Eiffel Tower

After a long day of sightseeing in Paris, my camera battery was fading fast. When we reached the peak of the Eiffel Tower, I eeked out two or three photos and thought I was home free.

Feeling my luck, I gratefully handed my camera to a woman who offered to take a photo of Paul and me. We were posed and ready, and that's when the battery decided to die.

Without hesitating, the lady kindly offered to take a photo with her own camera and email it to us. Paul handed over one of his business cards -- we knew there was a reason to pack them! -- and she introduced herself as Kelly. When we got home, the photos were waiting for us. And that's how Kelly saved the day and gave me my fondest memory of the Eiffel Tower.

Thanks, Kelly!

Yes, my fondest memory, but certainly not my only one. We had seen the tower from afar on our first day, but we didn't get up close and personal until the end of our second. We got there sometime around 8 p.m. as the sun was setting. The line was long and I was already cold in my hooded, zippered sweater; Paul was even colder in his short-sleeved collared shirt. Two hours later we had made it to the second floor, and shortly afterward the very top. The wind at the summit felt like it could blow you over the edge.

A funicular-like elevator takes you to the first and second levels.

But we were rewarded with terrific night views. The views from both the second and top levels weren't that different -- we were already higher than most of Paris at the lower level, and the light shimmered throughout the city and along the Seine wherever you were.

And a surprise: every hour on the hour at night, white lights strategically placed on the Eiffel Tower alternately blink, making the tower sparkle like a diamond for about five minutes. The oohs and aahs that inevitably went up as soon as the show started didn't do it justice, and neither does a camera. No matter. My camera had no shortage of Eiffel Tower views -- from that night and the next, when we were also in the area -- anyway.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Museum Hopping in Paris

If we ever went to as many museums in New York in four days as we did in Paris, I don't know what I would do. I literally don't know, because it would never happen. I like museums, but a dozen in 96 hours? Umm, no.

But this was Paris, and I wasn't about to let a little fatigue or giant crowds stop me from seeing the Mona Lisa or Monet's Water Lillies. And besides, unlike in New York, there would be no next week. If I didn't see them then, who knows when my next chance would be?

Water Lillies at the Orangerie

So I threw my frugal ways to the wind and sprung for a 4-day Paris Museum Pass. At 50 euro (about $70 USD) per pass, it's not cheap, but it was well worth the cost. The pass allowed free entrance into a few dozen museums -- far more than you could ever see in such a short amount of time -- plus a few church add-ons, like the towers of Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle. Plus, in most museums the pass allowed you to skip to the front of the line. That was worth more than a few bucks right there.

Above and three photos below: Louvre

In any case, we used the pass so much in the first day alone that our admissions would have cost 23 euro separately just that one day, and that didn't even count the Louvre (10 euro) and Versailles (something like 18 euro). I'm really glad we got the pass, but if we ever return to Paris I would probably now opt for the 2-day pass and skip a lot of the museums, concentrating on the few that I really, truly enjoyed. After all, I probably don't need to see Napoleon's tomb again.

Paul visited Paris for about 48 hours some 10 years ago, and one of the few things he did then that he absolutely wanted to do again was visit the Louvre. Of course, that was at the top of list, whether Paul put it there or not! He lingered through the exhibits of Greek and Roman statues, and I was happy to follow along without a specific goal in mind. Except for one. I conquered the thick crowds and got a good glimpse of the "Mona Lisa."

Crowds in front of the Mona Lisa

One thing the visit to the Louvre and nearly every other museum in Paris taught me is that cameras should be banned -- or allowed only on certain days or hours -- from all museums. I'm the first to admit that I'm as bad as the rest. I had to snap a photo of at least the most famous of the works, if only to prove to myself 10 years down the road that one day long ago I actually saw things of artistic and historic significance.

But I think I would have a much more meaningful experience if I was forced to put away the camera and see things with my eyes instead of through the camera lens. Perhaps more importantly, it might keep the large crowds around the most famous works under control -- and I wouldn't have had to continually worry about where I was stepping and whether I was ruining someone's shot.

Athena of Velletri at the Louvre

Venus de Milo at the Louvre

One museum that did ban cameras was one of my favorite stops in Paris -- the Orsay Museum. The works from 1848 to 1914 are exhibited in the old Orsay railway station on the banks of the Seine.We visited on our last full day in Paris, tired and museumed-out. We got there just a couple of hours before it closed, and it wasn't enough time. It's one of the few museums I definitely want to return to, just to take a closer look at the Impressionist paintings.

The truth is that I like museums, but I'm far from an art scholar. In fact, visiting so many museums in such a short amount of time (not to mention having access to so many here in New York) makes me wish I would have taken at least a beginner's art history course in college. In both Paris and Rome I would occasionally overhear a guide give a tour group some complex explanation of the deep meaning of a painting. Me? I just think it's pretty. My goals in a museum aren't complex: I want to see the famous stuff, and the rest is just icing on the cake. I think that's why the Orsay was such a pleasant surprise. I saw paintings there that I didn't recognize, yet they still made me stop, take a closer look and consider.

Another site on our must-see list was the Rodin Museum. This museum is mostly known for its gardens and one sculpture in particular: The Thinker. Paul practically had to wait in line for his turn, but we finally got our shot.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Views of Paris from the Top ... of Everything

View from Notre Dame

 My introduction to Paris was bleak.

Don't get me wrong -- I was ridiculously excited to see the Paris of my books, movies and dreams. That Paris, however, didn't appear until later, many hours after we had landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport at 6:30 a.m. on a gray and drizzly Sunday morning.

We rented an apartment in the Oberkampf neighborhood, slightly outside of the city center, but we couldn't check-in until 11:30 a.m. We found a cafe near the apartment and leisurely ate a breakfast of croissants and bread under a canopy outside, watching Parisians carry their baguettes home.

Paul fell asleep literally within minutes of collecting our apartment keys, but I was too excited to shut my eyes. I gave him an hour before gently nudging him awake. We were in Paris! Who wants to sleep?

We immediately visited the towers of Notre Dame, which ended up being not only be favorite stop in Paris, but maybe of the entire trip. After climbing a neverending spiral staircase, I was rewarded with amazing views over all of Paris, including my first sight of the Eiffel Tower. Here was the Paris I dreamed of seeing, gray skies or not.

From Notre Dame

From Notre Dame

The view was breathtaking, but it was only the first of many we saw throughout our four-day visit. Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, the Pantheon, Sacre Coeur ... the number of incredible views became something of a joke. Do we really need to see the Eiffel Tower or the hill of Montmartre again? Ahh, the terrible troubles we faced.

Ironically, the worst of the wonderful views were from the Eiffel Tower. It's easy to understand why. Who wants a view of Paris that doesn't include the Eiffel Tower?

By day three, we were weighing the merits of yet another excellent view with the wear and tear of yet another spiral staircase on our aching feet. But the views were always worth it. Always.

Champs-Elysees, from the Arc de Triomphe

From the Arc de Triomphe

From the Arc de Triomphe

Sacre Coeur, from the Arc de Triomphe

From Sacre Coeur

From the Pantheon

From the Pantheon

Monday, September 19, 2011

Two Wonderful Weeks Exploring Europe

Paris, Eiffel Tower

Every trip teaches you something.

In the last two weeks, I've learned that Romans actually use their window shutters, and not just for decoration. Quality gelato really is as good as they say. I should learn to make croque monsieurs. Fermented shark isn't as bad as it sounds, and penguin has the consistency of steak.

I've learned that everywhere in Paris has a view. Every corner in Rome has a church. Everyone in Copenhagen rides a bike. Every view in Iceland is a marvel.

Six countries, more than a dozen museums, too many churches to count, 1,139 photos, one mild allergic reaction and two weeks later, Paul and I have returned from our European getaway.

Our trip took us to Paris, Rome, Vatican City, Copenhagen and a Swedish suburb, and Reykjavik.

Rome, Colosseum

Here's how the trip came about:

We very nearly used some plane vouchers that were about to expire to go to Iceland last summer, but the tickets were still a little too expensive for just a long weekend. Plus, last spring two of my coworkers moved to Sweden, to a city just outside of Copenhagen. So Paul and I initially thought we would take a week's vacation and go to Reykjavik and Copenhagen.

Then I got to thinking. I sure would like to visit Paris. So then the trip became Copenhagen and Paris. And what about Rome? Why don't we take two weeks and go to Copenhagen, Paris and Rome? At this point Reykjavik was completely out of the picture.

But as I obsessively poured over plane schedules and prices, I realized that adding a stopover in Reykjavik actually made the plane tickets cheaper. Sign me up.

Copenhagen, Nyhavn

So that's how we ended up spending four days each in Paris and Rome, and three days each in Copenhagen and Reykjavik.I fully expected it to be a whirlwind trip, a sort of modern-day grand tour. What I didn't expect is that we would experience all four seasons in two weeks and that I would learn to convert four different currencies in my head

I have lots to write about and lots of photos to share. Over the next few weeks I'll be posting them here, interspersing them with the typical New York-based blog posts you usually find on this blog. I hope you enjoy them.

Iceland, Gullfoss

Friday, September 2, 2011

Hidden Art in Plain Sight

New York has some of the best museums in the world, but sometimes the best works of art -- the pieces that make you smile -- are hidden where you least expect it.

I'm not sure if the painting of the cat above, seen from the High Line park, is public art or graffiti, but I don't care when it produces a grin as big as that of the feline itself.

And speaking of grins, tomorrow begins my two-week (!) vacation. As always, my blog takes a break when I do. Posts resume on Monday, Sept. 19.


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