Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Who knew one could be sad to visit Paris? Maybe not sad exactly, but distracted and melancholy as it is the last stop on our trip. Somewhere had to be the last stop, of course, but perhaps next time (and the kids are already planning on a “next time!) we should end it somewhere not quite so amazing so that the setting better matches our mood. I don't want to go off on a tangent, I'll save a wrap up of the trip for at least one, and probably a couple future blogs when we can reflect upon things and really look at everything with a little more perspective. So, for now, I'll stick to the usual visit format.
We took the express train from Barcelona to Paris. This requires a change over a couple hours into the journey at the Spain-France border because of a different gauge track as well as a preference to keep their own equipment local. Then there's a longer 5-6 hour leg from the border into Paris. We were able to ride in first class during the longer leg, but it didn't offer much other than roomier seats and an upper deck instead of the lower level.
We got into Paris around 5pm, but it took us over an hour to navigate our way through the metro and for a bit of a walk to our hostel. We did a pretty quick turn around and headed for the Eiffel Tower, determined to get at least one item on our list out of the way. We didn't arrive at the tower until 7:45pm or so, but the light of the setting sun was great. The lines to take the elevator to the top were crazy long and it was closed, at the moment, for congestion. The lines to the first and second levels were even longer. So, the adventurous travelers that we are, we paid the bargain rate to hike the 720 stairs up to the 400 foot high second level! It was a little tough, but we've endured worse and it was actually a pleasant climb.
We did a little walk around, but by the time we got up there it was 8:30pm or so, we were all starving, and decided to grab dinner at the cafe. Prices were steep and the food mediocre—but what the heck, we ate supper in the Eiffel Tower! I headed out as the sun dropped below the horizon to get some moon photos and then so great shots as they did the light show on the tower itself. We all wandered around, looking for the various landmarks around the city and just enjoyed the cool breeze and the thrill that is being in Paris—and perhaps procrastinating taking the long metro ride home. We didn't get in until 11:30pm and quickly trashed our initial plans of an early morning and being first in line at the Louvre.
Plan “B” was to get up at 8:30am, have breakfast and head to the Arc d'Triomphe. We purchased our handy Museo Passes and climbed to the top for yet another high flying perspective on the city.
We then took the mandatory stroll down the length of the Champse Elysees with mandatory stops at the McDonalds for Big Macs on the patio then the Disney Story so Heath could get his I ♥ Paris Mickey Mouse T-shirt. The route continued through the Toullaries Gardens until we got to our ultimate destination, the Louvre.
We hit all the big items, Mona Lisa (3 times), Venus d'Milo, Coronation of Napoleon, etc. We toured through the Egyptian exhibit and then to the ancient Babylonians to see the Hamurabi's Code. All in all we raced through the place, were totally exhausted (the kids were practically sitting on the floor if we stopped to look at something), and still saw only a fraction of the items housed in this incredible museum.
We called it a day, found a small cafe just a couple blocks from the Louvre, at a nice French dinner complete with escargot and headed home for an early evening. Actually got the kids to bed close to being on time for the first time in about a week.
The second day we were up and out and in the queue for Musee d'Orsay (no photos allowed at all) 10 minutes before the 9:30am opening.
This is a relatively small museum that houses some of the worlds greatest impressionist works. During our visit they were having a special Manet exhibit that we bypassed b/c of an extra fee and a huge queue. None the less, we were awed by the collection, everything from THE Whistler's Mother, Van Gogh, a slew of Monet, Dega, Cezanne and others. The kids recognized many from their studies as well as previous museums. We spent a solid 2 hours there before moving on to a nice brassiere lunch including beef tartare, duck confit and quiche. US$10 for an iced tea was a bit steep, but we paid for the ambiance of the patio dining.
We headed along the Seine, past the book sellers and ultimately to a very crowded Notre Dame Cathedral.
Our museum passes should've gotten us into the bell towers, but the queue was ridiculous, stretching almost the length of the cathedral, in the sun, with some very exhausted looking people and no apparent movement to the line. The queue for the cathedral itself was a bit long, but moved along OK so we did manage to get inside for a quick tour. Tamara and the kids lit a candle in memory of Beverly.
We opted to view the architectural crypt of the old city of Paris and then move on to our Old City walking tour which took in the memorial to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps (all 200,000 French), a few more old churches, the Shakespear Book Store, the beautiful Sainte-Chappelle, which gives a whole new meaning to the term “Gothic”. After seeing multiple sites we were tired and felt a light dinner of fondu frommage and racolette would suffice. The kids enjoyed a Nutella crepe for the second time in one day and we reluctantly boarded our last metro for the hostel to shower and pack before heading home.
I write this feeling anxious, excited, melancholy, and tired. I feel a sense of satisfaction and completion, and yet a sense of having left so much yet to be done and another, less stress filled, life behind. More on that in our wrap ups.
Let's leave this on a positive note. Paris has charm and history and beauty like few other places we've seen. It stands alone. It has a city grid without sterility, it has history without feeling ancient and left behind. It is modern and yet sticks to its own character and personality. We, the Fuscos, have cheated Paris—it deserves more of our time and attention. Hopefully one day we can repay it just those things and more.
Monday, April 18, 2011
While Italy is a wonderful, culturally rich country and may call to Evan's soul, Spain is the “Queso Grande”, the big cheese for me. Me encanta Espana. Who could not love the land of tapas, flamenco, and Don Quixote? It had been 21 years since Evan and I backpacked here, and we were eager to show it to the kids. Brendan and Heath have had 2 years of Spanish camp under their belts, so this gave them the opportunity to “habla Espanol” a bit.
We landed in Madrid without any problems, and grabbed the Metro to the Plaza del Sol. This Plaza is in the heart of Madrid. In fact, “kilometro cero (kilometer zero)” is here.
Outdoor cafes, street performers, and people taking a paseo are here all hours of the day. This place hums with activity. We could feel the vibe when we stepped off the metro. Our hotel (with a balcony over the plaza) was just a few steps away.
Not to waste a moment, we ditched the bags and went out to explore the city. Once again, trusty 'ole Rick Steves and a city map led our way. First, we gave our regards to Charles III and the statue of the bear with the madrono tree (a symbol of Madrid).
Then we slowly started making our way up cobble stoned, twisting streets to the Plaza Mayor, one of my favorite places in Madrid! This plaza is square shaped and dates back to the 1600's. Today it is filled with shops and cafes, but when I'm here, I can just picture the bullfights and royal pageantry that took place here. Apparently the Inquisition had trials and executions here, too but I don't like to dwell on that!
From the Plaza Mayor, we continued onward, passing mercados and restaurants, the Cathedral of Alumdena, and the Royal Palace. Eventually we wound our way around to the Prado just in time for the evening hours. (Side note---In Greece, the major archaeological sites were closed by 3 pm with the docents “shooing out” everyone by 2:30pm, but in Spain, major museums and sites stayed open until 8pm! You gotta love a land of afternoon siestas and evening hours!)
The Prado is truly one of the great art museums of the world. Knowing that we only had a couple of hours, we tried to hit the highlights (first the aseo—I think Amarra's mission on this trip is to visit each major site's toilet)---Velazquez's “Las Meninas” and “Los Borrachos”, de Goya's Maja paintings, “Third of May, 1808”, and “The Family of Charles IV”, works of El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Murillo, and Hieronymous Bosch (Evan's favorite). After that, my feet were killing me, and I was starving, so I suggested that we go, but the boys were appalled that we had missed several works that we had studied in our art book. Who am I to impede education? Yep, we closed the Prado down and had a late supper afterwards. I guess something stuck from all that homeschooling!
Madrid's other premier art museum is the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia which exhibits contemporary art. It has wonderful works of Miro', Calder, Picasso, and Dali', but its signature painting is Picasso's “Guernica”. Picasso painted this piece in response to the saturation bombing devastation of the Spanish town of Guernica in 1937. Hitler used this this town as a “guinea pig” to try out Germany's new air force with Franco's permission! Picasso's painting is stark in black and white with images of a dead mother and baby (modern pieta), screaming horses, and confusion. I can't describe how powerful the painting is in person. “Guernica” was kept in the US until after Franco's death in 1981 when it was safe to be returned to Spain. (Perhaps the British Museum could take a lesson and return the Elgin Marble to Greece?)
We also visited two other museums: the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of the Americas. The Archaeological Museum has some nice pieces, but it is currently being renovated so only a small amount of its collection is on display. The Museum of the Americas, on the other hand, was great! This museum has treasures of North and South America brought back by the conquistadores. It even has one of 4 remaining pre-contact Mayan codices in the world. The museum was tastefully arranged, and the exhibits were pristine. I could have spent several hours in there, but unfortunately the rest of my family didn't agree, so we compromised and went for helado.
As with any trip, we always have one goof or missed opportunity! We knew that a lot of sites were closed on Monday, so we saved touring the Royal Palace (not closed on Mondays) and the outdoor Egyptian temple of Deblod (a gift from Egypt to Spain for help with conservation during the construction of the Aswan Dam) for then. Drats, foiled again! Apparently, there was an “official function” at the Royal Palace on Monday, so we couldn't tour. The Temple of Deblod, while open on the outside has an inner chamber that was, you guessed it, closed on Mondays!!!!
We did, however, have a great walk seeing the external Palace, the periphery of the Temple of Deblod, and the Don Quixote statue at the Plaza de Espana. Oh well, I guess that gives us a good reason to return to Madrid!
For lunch that day we headed the Mercado de San Miguel. We gave the boys 10 Euros each and sent them off together to fend for themselves with the admonition to speak only Spanish! This is a small, touristy and enclosed market—so they were safe all you worried relatives. I think they really enjoyed the opportunity to test their independence, their Spanish and their taste buds! They came back with some interesting choices and, we think, really enjoyed the experience. Meanwhile Evan and I enjoyed great Spanish wine, cheese, serrano ham, olives and croquettes. Amarra nibbled a bit of everything.
From Madrid, we headed south by train to Granada. Granada was the last stronghold of Moorish rule before Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Moors in 1492. Perched above the city is the well preserved gardens, palaces, and fort of the Moors, and later, the Christian rulers. Since we had not had the foresight to purchase tickets to the Alhambra months ago, we got up early, hiked up the hill, and scored same day tickets! Who knew you couldn't just walk right in like we did 21 years ago—a few things have changed in Europe since those days.
We started at the Palace of Charles V. Although lovely, this Renaissance structure certainly looks odd in a compound where everything else has Moorish architecture and art! Next, we roamed through the oldest structure (from 1200's) known as the Alcazaba or red fort. The kids had a great time climbing watch towers and admiring the view of Granada and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Finally, our ticketed time for the Palacia Nazaries arrived. We (and a few hundred friends) entered the palace to gape at the exquisite stone carvings and tiles. The inner courtyards were lovely although the most famous, the courtyard of the lions, is being renovated and does not have the lions and fountain in the courtyard itself. However, the recently restored lions were on display in another room and looked gorgeous! We ended our 5 hours in the Alhambra at the Generalife and Summer Palace. Just as 21 years ago, the gardens and fountains were beautiful! Roses, pansies, and wisteria were in bloom with flower perfume everywhere.
As in Madrid, we did a walking tour of Granada, seeing a caravanserai (traveler's inn from the Silk Road days), the old Silk Market, small enclosed plazas, and the Royal Chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella are entombed. Christopher Columbus petitioned the Catholic Monarchs here in Granada for his discovery voyage to the Americas. The Royal chapel held the silver box that contained the jewels Isabella gave him to finance the trip.
From Granada, we decided to do a quick, one night trip to Sevilla. Although Sevilla doesn't have a lot of physical sites to see, it is always known for the ambiance---tiny winding streets, outdoor cafes, bullfighting and flamenco. Arriving by train, we checked in and went for a walking tour (sound familiar?) through the Barrio Santa Cruz. With so little time, we decided to skip the Cathedral and Alcazar visits(next time, maybe), and instead went to the bullfighting arena and museum. Evan and I had been to a bullfight before in Mexico, and that was enough for me! However, bullfighting is certainly a passion and part of the culture in Andalusia, so we wanted the kids to experience at least a little. Lucky for me that there were no fights scheduled until Sunday, so we just toured the arena, chapel, and the museum. The tour included some fairly grizzly explanations of how a fight is conducted. Unfortunately, the ring itself was being readied for the start of the bull fighting season in a week or two so it was packed with heavy equipment and piles of rock and sand making photography challenging.
Flamenco is Seville's other love. The only Flamenco museum in the world is in Sevilla. Besides visiting the museum, we bought tickets for the night's performance. In addition to dancing (female and male), flamenco also incorporates stylistic guitar playing, clapping and shoe tapping as well as singing. (Interestingly, the singing reminded me of the muzzein's call to prayer that we heard in Turkey!) Amarra was thrilled to see the performance! She dressed up in her own flamenco outfit, watched enthusiastically, and then gave her own impromptu performance on the stage after the show to the appreciation of the remaining audience.
Dinner was at a bodega near the hotel and included fried aanemone and some delicious lamb chops. Even though our time was short, I think we had a good taste of this passionate, full of life city. Adios Sevilla, hello Barcelona!
Barcelona was our last stop in Spain. Arriving by train, we checked in our hotel, and did....wait for it....a walking tour of the city! We rambled down the Ramblas and made it to the Museu Picasso for their evening hours. Picasso lived in Barcelona from ages 14-21, so they have a lot of his early pre-cubist pieces---fantastic! The highlight here was Picasso's many interpretations of Velasquez's “Las Meninas” that we had seen in the Prado. Heath was especially impressed by it and even spent his own allowance money buying prints for his room at home.
No visit would be complete to Barcelona without going to La Sagrada Familia. This cathedral envisioned by Antoni Gaudi has been undergoing construction for over 100 years. When we were here last, the main building wasn't even enclosed. It is truly spectacular now. They anticipate only 20 more years to finish it. Once completed, it will be a gigantic, amazing blend of nature, traditional Catholic symbols, and modernista architecture. Don't miss this if you're in Barcelona. Amarra says she'll bring her children here to see it, just like we brought her!
We ended our sojourn to Barcelona with an exploration of the Barri Gotic, finding hidden plazas, remnants of bombing from the Spanish Civil war, and even remains of a Roman temple.
I just can't end this blog without talking about the food of Spain. For the most part, we have eaten “family style” here so that we can try many different dishes while saving on cost. Spain is known for its pork products—-Serrano and Iberico ham, chorizo, morcilla (blood sausage), etc., and I think Evan has eaten every type of ham available! We have had amazing tapas of cheeses, marinated olives, calamari sandwiches, tortilla (egg and potato frittata), croquetas, patatas bravas, home made potato chips, octopus salad, fried padron peppers, bacalao, and olive tapanade. Some of our main dishes have been stewed ox tail, paella, parilla, duck confit, fava beans with ham, lamb chops, fried sea anemone, and Sea Bass. In fact, we have been so eager to try new things, that our waiter in Madrid told Evan, “stop!” (along with a hand gesture) after the 4 items he'd ordered (we'd planned on 8!). He then told us that if we were still hungry after eating what we ordered, we could order more. He was right; we were stuffed after that! The kids rave about “churros y chocolate” for breakfast. Perhaps, the part that we love the best is the late afternoon custom of sipping beer, wine, or sangria (soft drinks for the kids) with tapas like olives or nuts at a little sidewalk cafe.
Although a lot of things have changed in the last 21 years, what is the same is that I still love this vibrant, passionate, and welcoming country. We'll be back! Hasta luego, Espana!