Monuments, Mona, and Memories Forgotten…

Right, well, what did I do today. Might be easier to ask what I didn’t do and work backwards from there!

Difference between Venice and Paris: cars. I wondered why I was sort of tense and stressed out as I started on my day. Figured it out after a while – all the cars everywhere. There are no cars in Venice. So nice, the only sound footfalls and boats puttering slowly down the canals. Here it’s cars and trucks and motorbikes and scooters rushing everywhere and honking. After three days of Venice, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. In that respect, Venice is much more to my liking. The pace of it. Even on the canals, there was no way to really get anywhere fast. You didn’t see anybody rushing about. The pace of the city was completely different. In Paris, everybody wants to get everywhere as fast as possible.

I’m back at the room now – 7:00. Another little picnic dinner. More gourmet than yesterday though – this baguette with tuna and egg and spicy mustard. Quite good, from a little baguette stand down the road. I was too tired to go find somewhere nice. We’ll have a good dinner tomorrow.

So, today. A lot of bloody stairs! Some serious hiking today. It was sunny when I started, but they were calling for rain (and I was expecting it – huge thunderstorm last night. Woke me up at 3am with thunder and lighting – I’ve never heard such thunder, shook the hotel). The rain never came of course, so I was pretty much overdressed and overheated all day, but oh we’ll.

First stop – “the stairway up to la butte” (see my blog from last night) refers to the Sacre Coeur cathedral, beautiful old church near here, up a hill, the highest point in the city, with fantastic views of the city. The stairs made me sigh (there was a tram thing up the hill, but I opted for the stairs – a theme for the day).

I think I’m nearing my saturation point for huge churches and monuments and old buildings though. Not quite the thrill it was two and a half weeks ago. Nevertheless, a beautiful city. The scale of it is the most impressive thing. It just goes on forever. You could spend months exploring it.

Anyway, next stop was the Arc de Triomphe, and then a stroll down the Champs Élysées – sort of a much bigger, much older, and much prettier Robson Street. The Louis Vuitton store was quite something. Notre Dame – not quite as impressive as I thought it would be, especially compared to some I’ve seen on this trip.

The goal was to get to the Louvre by mid-morning. A good thing too. My god, what a zoo. The main entrance area (through that big glass pyramid) felt more like train station or an airport than a museum. Every tourist in the city with a camera pushing to get to the two main attractions – the Venus di Milo, and the Mona Lisa of course. You couldn’t get near the Mona Lisa without liberal use of elbows. They allow cameras, so it was like a pack of Paparazzi around Angelina Jolie or something, click click click click. Well I elbowed my way in with the rest of them just to say I saw it. But you couldn’t really look at it in any meaningful way. Anyway. There were some much quieter areas of the museum with some very impressive works – paintings, sculpture, gold and jewelry, tapestries, carvings. It’s like five or six museums in one. I let my feet take me where they wanted to go without caring too much where that was. Emerged a few hours later. Glad I got the crowded part over with first – the rest was really quite pleasant. And I came away with some nice pictures as well.

After that was coffee – there was a Starbucks in the museum. And I can report that French Starbucks is better than Canadian Starbucks. I think they use better beans or something – or it could be that they put extra shots of espresso in their lattes.

Next was a walk along the bank of the Seine River to the Eiffel Tower. It had clouded over early on, but the sun was peaking out by now. So that was perfect. I took the stairs up (two thirds of the way – you have to take an elevator to get to the very top). Primary reason: the line for the stairs was considerably shorter than the line for the elevator. Crowds crowds crowds! But it was pretty neat up there. Views amazing of course, the whole city.

After that, a sort of somber stop – the Vel d’Hiv memorial at its former site. This is a story that a lot of people don’t know about (or seem to particularly care about). Something France obviously isn’t very proud of and would rather have go away. Look it up if you’re interested – but here’s the basics. The Vel d’Hiv was a big stadium, a velodrome. During the war, the Vichy regime rounded up several thousand Jews (the numbers on the memorial were 1129 men, 2916 women, and 4115 children), put them in this stadium for a couple days (many died there – the conditions were terrible, no sanitation, no food, no water, just crowds of people like cattle), and then put them in boxcars off to the Auschwitz. The stadium has since been demolished, and on the site now are modern apartments and office buildings. All there is on the site is a small patch of grass, some flowers, and a plaque – maybe ten feet by ten feet. It’s just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and no one even knows its there or that this even happened. There are no signs pointing to it, and while I was there, I was the only one there.

Anyway.

After that, crossing the river, back to the Champs Élysées, heading home. Stopped again at the Arc de Triomphe. It wasn’t open yet when I passed by in the morning, and as it was sunny now, I paid the fee and climbed some more stairs to the top. Some more fantastic views. A break in the clouds and the sun hit the pure white dome of the Sacre Coeur, way off in the distance. Beautiful.

The Metro home, and we’re caught up to now. A more relaxing day tomorrow, and then that’s Paris, and we really will be getting to the end of this. The final travel day, the final day in Amsterdam, the 30. But we won’t get into any of that. Plenty of time yet.

The courtyard where I’m writing this –

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Cemetery, Moulin Rouge, Rat, McDonalds (in that order)

Grand little stroll on my first might in Paris.

This amazing above-ground cemetery – all these little tombs like its own little neighborhood. Beautiful as the sun went down.

Then, as darkness fell, making a random turn – the windmill of the Moulin Rouge. Quite the scene. On my way back, yes, a rat. And McDonalds. That’s one in every city so far (McDonalds, not rats – only other rat so far was in Amsterdam). The street was bright with neon lights.

Tomorrow, rain or not, we start with a Cathedral, and then on to the Arc de Triopmphe, down the Champs Élysées.

Bed now. Alas, they’re calling for rain. But Paris in the rain will have its own kind of beauty, I think. And if there’s too much of it, I know of one big museum in town that I an spend the day in. Besides, I daresay I’m getting to be something of an expert at Europe in the rain…

Rufus:
“The stairways up to la butte
can make the wretched sigh.
While windmill wings of the Moulin
shelter you and I.”

Joni:
“I deal in dreamers
And telephone screamers
Lately I wonder what I do it for
If l had my way
I’d just walk through those doors
And wander
Down the Champs Elysees
Going cafe to cabaret
Thinking how I’ll feel when I find
That very good friend of mine”

Mon premier repas à Paris

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Funny, my high school French is coming back to me. Little bits and pieces. Managed to understand the grocery clerk and (sort of) answer him. This city’s going to be a breeze. My hotel, Hotel des Batignoles, is in this fabulous little neighborhood, lots of shops and pubs and restaurants. Pity I have so little time. The hotel, like everything here, is fairly ancient – old gas radiators, old doors and pipes in the bathroom, this table’s an antique, and a beautiful antique armoire. But new fixtures in the bathroom, new paint and carpet and all that. Really very nice and bright (a considerable improvement over Venice’s closet…).

I picked up a map, so I’m going to sort out tomorrow’s route after dinner, and get an early night (up at 7 is the plan).

Walked my street for a bit, picked up some groceries. At the end of the block there was this fabulous outdoor flea market / antique fair. I wanted to buy just everything! And this little park, a little creek running though it, this ancient domed greenhouse – inside it, a single orange tree. Just beautiful. Okay, dinner, unpacking, and plans for tomorrow.

Oh, before I forget – the metro is fabulous! Perfectly ancient – the low arched ceilings and tiles on the walls. I’ll try and get some pictures when I’m out and about tomorrow. Right, done dinner. Much to do and only a couple hours left. Must end this here.

Leaving for Paris…

6:13 – Early morning in Venice. Up with the sun. The sky was so beautiful, all orange and red over the dome of the church. The birds, a few lonely footfalls on the usually packed streets, all the shops closed and shuttered. No troubles with the trains, the hotel is nice and near the station. Heaven help those stuck way at the other end of the island down over twenty bridges and down some little lane. I guess you’d spring for one of the canal taxis.

The island must be completely booked. There was a sizable crowd sleeping or just waking up when I arrived at the train station, and not just bedraggled backpackers like me, but respectable looking people who must have come last night without a reservation. Heaven help them too.

So today were off to Paris. I must admit I’m a little nervous. The last few cities have been quite small, really. Only Berlin felt like a real city. And Paris is huge. We’ll have to find our way.

6:20 – We’re off, right on time. Heading out onto the long bridge that connects the island to the mainland. Sunrise, and a last look back…

(I hope they serve coffee on this train)

So what’s the schedule? This is a short one, gets me into Milan at 8:55. Then about an hour twenty to get to the next train. Complications here as we arrive at Milan Centrale, next train leaves from Milan Garibaldi, a different station. But I did some poking about online, and it seems this is how it’s done (lots of people asking questions about how one does this transfer). Seems its relatively easy to transfer stations on public transit. Think I have it sorted. Then the next train leaves at 10:12, arriving in Paris at 5:22. It’ll either be more public transit after that, or else a long walk. Think I’ll go for the transit option. So I’ll be there between 6 and 7, dinner, see what my neighborhood is about, and then bed.

Tomorrow. Well, many possibilities for tomorrow. We’ll start making those plans once we’re on the next train and a bit more relaxed.

6:31 – No sign of that coffee yet…

6:40 – This is one of those high speed trains – haven’t been on one yet (some very low speed trains, but no high speed yet). We’re flying!

6:57 – Free espresso! Luxury!

8:21 – Milan in about half an hour. Farms and fields and green everywhere. Passed through Verona a while back.

9:53 – Well that was easy. On the train. Holy smokes – this thing’s luxurious. Ultra modern, big reclining seat, restaurant in the next car (which is where I’ll be headed just as soon as we get going – maybe there’ll even be waiters!). Milan Centrale station, by the way, so grand. Seems like a cool city. Some other time perhaps.

10:47 – Cappuccino, sandwich al prosciutto, Toblerone, and cherries. Multo civiloso!

11:36 – Turino. We’ll be crossing into France soon. This is where they held the Olympics not long ago, wonder if we’re headed into the mountains again.

12:21 – Yep, mountains.

1:04 – Making our way through the mountains. Beautiful day, beautiful scenery, a clear blue river, little chalets. Stopping at some little town now, Modane, police coming around to check our passports. We’re in France now it seems.

The last little stretch, I’ve been planning out my days. So much to see! I’m going to have to pick and choose a bit more here I think, no chance of seeing the whole city in just two days. I think I’ll do the Louvre – I’d been hesitating because it’s just so big. But it’s in the east and I’m coming from the west, so I can get an early start, make my way down to the river, head for the Louvre, and along the way see a bunch of the sights, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, this and that. Be at the Louvre by noon, and spend the rest of the afternoon there.

Then on the second day – I found this website with an hour by hour “A Perfect Day In Paris” itinerary that I might give a try. I’ll invest in a good map of the city and of the Metro, and get a three day pass at the station. Between that and my good old trusty feet, I should be able to cover enough ground.

So that’s that. Tonight will just be for finding my hotel and settling in – des Batignolles – seems like it might be an interesting place. Right. About four hours to go. Think I might have some wine and press the recline button on this snazzy chair and watch the mountains roll by…

2:53 – Out of the mountains. Pulling into Lyon soon I think. Rolling French countryside. Beautiful in its simplicity. Had a little snooze. Feeling refreshed. A little over two hours to go. An espresso I think, to get me going again. We’ll be there before I know it.

4:00 – Speeding through the French countryside. Rolling hills and sheep and old stone farmhouses, little wooden fences overgrown with vines and shrubs.

6:22 – Je suis arrivé à Paris. Fabuleux!

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Tea Party Italia

Seriously. Look it up – http://templeofmut.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/interview-with-italys-tea-party-organizer/

When I went out earlier, there was a rally in my square. A well-dressed older gentleman making a speech (couldn’t understand a word of course). Maybe 30 or so in attendance waving flags with that hilarious logo you’ll see in the website. They seemed very enthusiastic. Several heavily armed policemen stood guard.

A nice relaxing little evening. Went to the supermarket (the theme song from Friends paying, also Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”), some cherries, crackers, cheese, chocolate croissants (of the pre-packaged variety, unfortunately). Headed for Saint Mark’s square, found a shady bench, and had an entirely delightful little picnic dinner (and plenty left over for lunch on the train tomorrow). I was near enough to that restaurant with the €6 band to hear them for free!

Then attempted an off the map walk home, testing out my new sense of direction. Got completely lost and turned around of course. But a fun time finding my way home again. Then a quiet evening at the hotel with some wine, reading out in the alley – at my favorite line, “‘Anything is grand if it’s done on a large enough scale,’ said Henry.”

Churches of Venice (including the one from Indiana Jones)

The heat! The heat!

Taking an early break (3:00). Everything’s packed up and ready in the room. The day starts at 4am tomorrow, so it’ll be an early night.

Yesterday’s plans were thrown out the window this morning in favor of a spur of the moment decision. Turned out to be the right one I think. The city is packed to the brim, and I wasn’t in the mood for any more lines. So, looking at the map over breakfast this morning, I realized there must be a hundred churches in this city, and I’d only seen maybe ten. So I decided today would be a church day, and that’s what it was. Starting at my end of the island, I visited as many churches as was humanly possible. I’m sure I didn’t see nearly all of them, but made a good dent. Beautiful. Not much else to say. I’ve covered so much ground these last few days, I’m actually feeling like I know my way around without needing to look at the map. The shadows help. Once you know where the sun is, your inner sense of direction kicks in and as long as you wad vaguely in the direction you want, you get there eventually.

Part way through I stopped off in a little square for a Campari and a sandwich (finally a cheap meal). Here’s where Indiana Jones comes in – The Last Crusade (the third movie) takes place in Venice, and I’d actually had it in the back of my mind whether I’d spot any of the locations. Well there’s this one scene outside of a church. After hunting around in the catacombs, these guys that are after them chase them into the sewers or something, and they end up coming out in the middle of the square outside of the church, popping up through a manhole cover in the midst of all these tables.

So I’m sitting having lunch, and all of a sudden this group of British tourists turns up and starts reenacting the scene while someone films it on their phone. And I of course realize this is the church from the movie. It was hilarious, and the Europeans in the crowd didn’t know what on earth to make of it. The classic line is Indy coming up from the sewer, looking around, and saying “Ah, Venice!” Then whoever it is that’s chasing them shows up, and they take off running.

So that was interesting. Then ten minutes later, a second group of Brits show up and do the same thing. And then a third! From what I could glean from overheard conversation, it was some kind of contest – a reality show or something, maybe? Anyway, pretty weird but pretty entertaining.

Oh Venice, Venice, we’re so close to the end. After more than two weeks now, part of me is getting a bit homesick, my quiet little space, so important to my mental well-being. And I haven’t done a bit of writing since I’ve been here. So part of me won’t mind getting back to (parts) of the old routine (though that old routine is going to require a few modifications). But so much of me still doesn’t want it to end. Passed by a real estate office today – not as expensive as you might think…

But I’ll tell you what is getting expensive! Going to the bathroom. There’s not a single free toilet on this continent, even in restaurants where you’ve just had an expensive meal. And now it’s so hot, you’re drinking so much water. You have to plan things out – those Euros add up.

Right. Everything ready for tomorrow. After I finish here, I’m going to head back to that supermarket and get something for dinner today and lunch tomorrow. I’d like to get some fruit and cheese or something, and then find a little square somewhere for a picnic. All for now.

Aw, the hotel clerk just sprinkled some crackers outside. This lone little sparrow got his fare share before the pigeons arrived. Oh! The swallows. I guess there’s lots of bugs here, and around sunset, you look up and the sky is just filled with them.

Tomorrow we leave for Paris.

Notes from dinner – I’ll start with the pasta, and for my main course I’ll have pasta…

We’ll call it a translation error, but it was good anyway!

– Delicious dinner, a little place tucked over a bridge and around a corner, Taverna San Trovaso, been here 35 years.
– Doing the proper two courses, pasta to start, then meat. Spaghetti with black squid ink sauce, some kind of meat, I couldn’t pronounce it t-something with scallops, and some wine. Looks promising and not too expensive.
– Americans at the next table, ordered salad but were okay with the dressing as the chef chose to apply it.
– Very good pasta, the black sauce, simple but amazing flavor, some kind of fish bits in it, squid I guess? Mission accomplished, and that would have been enough. Whole other course coming.
– I’ve discovered you pay for the view here (this place is good, cheap, but has no view)
– Ha! My main course is more pasta, Oh well, looks good. Well I was after good pasta and I got it twice over. It was on the daily specials menu, thought it was some kind of meat.
– Simple pasta, oil, some herbs, scallops, some small pieces of salmon.
– And just for fun, a brandi.
– Headed for the Grand Canal after, and then an off the map wander home.
– The Americans are getting drunk. Pleased that they found a hotel that gets Fox News.
– Now they’re talking politics, apparently Obama doesn’t have a chance, the Republican primary, something about Mormons.
– Walking home slowly, listening to Les Miserables, damn their warnings damn their lies, they will see the people rise…
– Starting to feel the end approaching. How do I go back to normal life after this?