Friday, January 13, 2017

Paris — The City of Lights

Eiffel Tower from the top of Arc de Triomphe.It’s getting to two months since our return from Europe and we have yet to write anything about it. So I will start with Paris — the first stop of our three country vacation and the rest will follow.

Our hotel. Hilton Paris Opera.As most European flights are we left JFK on a red-eye flight to Paris with a stop-over in Reykjavik. For some reason this flight was unusually tiring on us. Neither one of us can really sleep well on a plane and this time around Alёna started to get a huge migraine which in her case usually leads to inability to stand and possible fainting. And the only solution was to sleep which she couldn’t do well.

Streets of Paris. On our way to the arch.During a stop-over in Reykjavik we had to stand in line to go through passport control and I feared that she was either going to pass out or decide to lye down on the floor. Luckily after we went through passport control she started feeling better and the next flight went relatively OK. But we were very very tired after it all.

Streets of Paris.I remember during our trip to Germany we even went out right after our flight to Berlin. And when we went to Barcelona we didn’t feel as tired either. We took a short nap and set out for a long walk. As we did here. We took a taxi to our hotel which was not far from all the things that we wanted to see, got checked in after a small wait — which we spent in an executive lounge — into an small suite via a free upgrade with an “amazing” view of some roof.

Arc de Triomphe.The hotel itself looked grand inside and out. It actually looked like some old opera house inside. So we asked whether it was converted from something else into a hotel. Turns out it was always a hotel which was built at the end of 19th century. It used to be directly connected to a large train station behind the hotel which is still there. The hotel changed ownership multiple times throughout it’s history and was acquired by Hilton group in 2013. Now it’s known as Hilton Paris Opera.

View from the to of the arch.And after a well proportioned nap we got dressed and set course towards the famous Arc de Triomphe which was one and a half miles away from our hotel or a 30 minute walk. This was our first impression of Paris. And it is grand, like no city that we have seen before. The streets seemed old yet cozy. Old churches, old buildings — lots and lots of history.

Another view of the tower from the top.There were a lot of refugees on the streets, but instead of feeling unsafe in these situations you couldn’t help but feel compassion for those families. During the day woman would spent time with kids under the blankets in cold streets and later on a father would join, probably coming back from trying to find work.

Staircase inside the arch.The arch was quite impressive and even though it was dark out there was a large number of people around it. Since climbing atop the arch was one of the things on our list and we would be coming there again anyhow we didn’t spend a lot of time around it and turned back. We tried to find some dinner place and ended up walking through some tiny streets to find a highly rated place via Trip Advisor. But it turned out to be closed on that day of the week.

The Eiffel Tower.We walked back all the way to our hotel and searched again. Ended up going for dinner into some small tapas places, but for some reason we ended up ordering full dinner entries. In retrospect that was a mistake — should’ve gone for things that they specialize in. We did, however, try some interesting red sweet beer.

Right across Seine from The Eiffel Tower.We started our first full day with a walk back to the arch, bought the tickets and took a long spiral staircase up to the top. The view was magnificent. This was also the first time we actually saw The Eiffel Tower with our own eyes. And the vantage point was perfect for photographing it. The arch itself was located in a center of circle to which a lot of streets were connecting, making it look like you are standing in a center of sun with rays running out of it.

Under the tower.We spent a while walking around and taking pictures. Sadly for my photography the sky was constantly gray making for less then stellar end results. But I had my GND filters with me, so I could still make photos without featureless skies. In fact the view was so great that we decided that there was no point going to an observation deck of skyscraper that we originally planned to visit.

Shores of Seine.Our next destination was the famous tower itself — another 30 minute walk. Beforehand we had to do a thorough inspection of a bathroom — none of which are free in Paris — of a large department store. A side note — everything in Paris was within a walking distance, so we didn’t have to use any kind of transpiration at all.

Seine.Right across from the tower there was a set of stairs that one could climb for a nice view of the tower and surroundings. And after taking a couple of photographs from there we crossed the Seine and ended up pretty much right under the tower. It really is pretty huge. To get exactly under the tower one had to go through security gates — there is a fence around the tower — and since we didn’t really want to go up the tower we decided to skip that.

Alexandre III bridge across Seine.And then we just set course towards our hotel along the shores of Seine. Since it was a weekend a lot of people were out and about — running, cycling or just walking. At one point a shady looking woman bent over in front of us and made it seem like she just found a golden ring. It was obvious to me that it was some kind of scam, so I just waved her off. Alëna wasn’t sure, so we just stood there and watched. The same exact scene repeated itself when she walked up to some other group of people. Things like this are pretty easy to spot to avoid unpleasant situations.

Alexandre III bridge. The Eiffel Tower in the background.After a nice walk we crossed Seine again and even the bridges in this city are grand — magnificent statues and all. We got caught under a bit of rain, but it stopped shortly after it started. And then we ended up on one of the winter markets that we remember so well from Germany. Lots of street food, crafts, drinks and everything else that these markets tend to have. And a lot of people.

Christmas market.This is where we tried one of the “musts” in France — crepes. We ordered a pair of crepes with different stuffing. We wanted to get some Gluehwein — hot German wine, but for some reason didn’t. The crepes were crepes. Nothing unexpected. But now we can claim that, yes, we did try crepes in Paris. And I again had to test out the local facilities — my stomach was acting up all day long — the one and only day when it was giving me problems. I don’t think it’s crepe related though, but it did put a bit of a damper on this fun day.

Parisian crepes.On the way to our hotel we stopped by another very grand looking church with huge columns for a short visit and that was it for exploring on that day. For dinner we went to Restaurant Garnier that was recommended by hotel staff — a place right across the street from our hotel. It turned out to be probably the best dinner of the whole trip. I ordered some insanely expensive fried fish, but it was totally worth it.

Louvre.The main objectives of our second and last full day in Paris were Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris. If the tower and the arch were on the west side of our hotel, Louvre and Notre Dame were on the east. The day turned out to be somewhat rainy, so we borrowed an umbrella from our hotel and were on our way.

Louvre lobby.Louvre was about 2km away — another 30 minute walk through the streets of Paris. When we arrived there we saw the world famous glass pyramid entrance and as expected — no line. We quickly passed through the security checkpoint and saw a coat check by the entrance. We figured since we’re going to spend 2-3 hours were it would be nice to to lug our outerwear with us.

Venus de Milo.The thing is that we hate going through a regular coat check though. Standing in line, getting a number, somebody handling your clothing, retrieving it, tipping and all that. But in Louvre you end up in a large locker room in which you pick any shelf from different sized ones and each one is equipped with a digital lock. You put your stuff in, set the pin and that’s it. Great.

Mona Lisa.And then we wondered through the halls of this top art museums of the world. Among the most famous things we saw was Venus de Milo and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was probably the most crowded place of the whole museum. It was not even possible to get close to it. There were two guards, a guard rail, bullet proof glass and a “selfing” crowd.

One of very many halls inside Louvre.The museum is impossible to cover in one day. We usually places like this 2-3 hours and then we tend to get tired. Towards the end of our tour when we sat down on one of the benches for a little bit of rest Alёna remembered that we still haven’t seen the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David — The Coronation of Napoleon. I started looking around and lo and behold — we’re sitting right in front of it.

Streets of Paris.Notre Dame de Paris was another 1.7km away in the same direction — further away from our hotel. Needless to say the walk back was somewhat long. But we keep trying to take different routes and end up seeing a good portion of all the cities that we visit through non-touristy streets. These walks probably are the things that built the feel of the city for us.

Notre Dame de Paris.Notre Dame itself is not all that unusual from the looks of it inside or out to my untrained eyes. But what makes it really special is the fact that it has seen so much history. The construction of it began almost 900 years ago. Napoleon was crowned inside of it, as is depicted by the above mentioned painting. The day was quite rainy so we decided not to go to the roof though.

Streets of Paris.And after that we took a long walk back to our hotel. We were so tired by the day’s end that we decided to grab a late light lunch in hotel restaurant and later some appetizers at the executive lounge instead of going out. And thus our stay in Paris has concluded as the next morning we were leaving it for Brussels.

Streets of Paris.As I said earlier Paris has left a very positive and lasting impression on us. It really is grand all throughout. We did see a lot of things, but there are many many other things to do that we didn’t have time for. In retrospect we really should’ve allocated more time for Paris, especially considering that a train to Brussels only takes an hour. I would like to visit it again in the future.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Day in Milan

Milan Cathedral.Milan. The commercial and industrial center of Italy. One of the fashion capitals of the world. We were not sure if we wanted to visit you. There are some people, who think you can be easily skipped on the first trip to Italy, but we did not, and we have no regrets.

Milano Centrale Train Station.We arrived to Milan on Wednesday (November 21st) afternoon by train. Before we boarded the train, I was secretly hoping that our travel companions will be as much fun as Lorenzo was. No such luck. First of all, they took one of our seats, which apparently is not a big deal, but we did not know it and felt uncomfortable at first. And secondly, they had no interest in communicating with us, which I absolutely expected, but still hoped for something more fun.

Streets of Milan.We ended up changing our sitting arrangement so that we would have no travel companions at all (there are usually two pairs of seats facing each other). The ride itself was relatively short, just under two hours. I think that one of the reasons why trains are so popular and well-scheduled in Europe is that distances between major travel destinations are not that great.

Our suite at Hilton Milan.Upon our arrival we took a short walk to the hotel and checked in. Since we only spent one night in Milan, we’d decided that staying close to the train station would be very convenient, and it actually was the case. The Hilton that we stayed in was very nice, and as Diamond VIP members we got our room upgraded to a suite, access to the executive lounge, free internet and free breakfast. The area around the hotel seemed safe, and the added benefit was that subway was close by.

Subway of Milan.After checking in we went to see the famous Milan Cathedral. It was just a few subway stops away, so we spent very little time getting there. The square in front of the church was quite busy — there were a lot of people and pigeons. The cathedral looked impressive from the outside, but I have to say that to me it was a bit less magical than the Florence one.

Inside the cathedral.After admiring it for a little while, we entered the place to check the inside. It looked expectantly Gothic — high ceilings, echoing steps, colorful mosaics depicting biblical scenes, altars, candles. I sat on one of the benches and thought about life; meanwhile Danya tried to take a few pictures despite poor light conditions. We also went to some sort of basement where sarcophagi with the corpses of a few religiously significant people were being stored. It felt a bit creepy.

On cathedral's roof.After that we decided to take a tour of the cathedral’s roof. We found the entrance easily, but it turned out that the tickets were sold in a separate shop, so we needed to acquire them prior to our admittance. The guards gave us good directions, so it was not a big deal (although I still don’t understand why they don’t sell them by the entrance). We opted for the elevator this time around.

Walking on the roof.Walking on the roof was a unique experience. You can’t really appreciate all the delicate details of the sculptures, spires and arches while looking at them from afar, so I am very glad that it’s possible to get so close to them. We also had an opportunity to look at Milan from above, but the day was somewhat hazy, so the view was just OK.

Another view from the top.There were also maintenance repair jobs going all over the place, so Danya was disappointed about the lack of more picturesque views. Oh well. It was still very nice, I am glad we did it. I’ve noticed that many statues had thin long sharp metal sticks attached to their tops. My guess is that it’s done to prevent pigeons from being too comfortable there.

Charleston.When we finished, it was time to eat. We walked around for a bit and picked a place at random. It was called Charleston, and we ended up having one of the best meals of our vacation over there. Since it was lunch, we ordered light — just a buffalo mozzarella pizza and spaghetti with chilli peppers. Both meals were super delicious, and I still salivate when I think about that pizza.

Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza.If I had a chance to eat a single meal from Italy again, it would definitely be buffalo mozzarella pizza. And pasta was just the right firmness. I’ve heard the term al dente so many times, but only at Charleston I understood the true meaning of it. I actually started to make firmer pasta at home upon our return from Italy.

Square in front of Milan Cathedral.We wondered around after lunch for a short while and went back to the hotel. There was nothing much to do, so we just relaxed, read, called Danya’s parents and Aroshka via face-time.

View from the roof.In a few hours we went to the executive lounge for some snacks and drinks. We’ve decided not to go out for dinner and just fill up on the free stuff that Hilton has to offer. And it was actually more than enough, because they had a great selection of snacks (salads, grilled vegetables, bruschetta, fish, olives) and wine was a plentiful as always. We went to bed early to be fresh for our last train ride next morning.

Street leading to our hotel.When we were reading about Milan we saw a lot of references about people gazing and looking at fashionable clothing. However people in Milan did not strike me as extra fashionable. I guess, after living in New York for over 10 years, it’s hard to be impressed.
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