Friday, May 3, 2013

Europe Day 9 to 12: Paris

What is it that they say about expectations? Oh right, don't have them.

When it comes to Paris though, it's nearly impossible not to have expectations. Especially when just about everyone who's been to Paris tells you how much you'll love it. You just have to look at pictures, and the place looks magical. Although, your expectations can be low since there's the stereotype about Parisians and how they are rude to Americans and refuse to speak English.

The stereotype was not my experience. And despite my high expectations, I fell in love with the City of Lights. In fact, my love for Paris is blind. I hate public transportation, but I loved using their Metro and bus system. Most of my food encounters were great, except for at this one place; and even then I just thought to myself, "Well, it can't all have been perfect." Even having a bracelet scam guy brazenly grab my arm and follow me when I turned away didn't ruin this place for me. Yup, I love Paris.

My first two nights were spent on the Left Bank at Les Jardins d'Eiffel, and my last two nights were at the Renaissance Paris Vendome Hotel. I now know I am a Left Bank kind of girl. Jardins d'Eiffel is near the La Tour Maubourg Metro stop, and about a 15-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. This part of town was more of a regular Parisian neighborhood, and significantly less touristy than the area around the Renaissance Vendome; which is across Jardins des Tuileries, and close to the Louvre.

My Hugo moment at the d'Orsay

Of course I had a checklist of things to see - Museé d'Orsay, Museé du Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Champs Élyssés, Arc de Triomphe, etc. - but, I also just wanted to enjoy my time there. Meaning, I wanted to take Anthony Bourdain's advice on Paris, and enjoy it at a leisurely pace. So, while I saw everything on my list, and I also fit in Museé de l'Orangerie and the Sacré Couer, and I explored.

Museé du Louvre

I found my way on the Metro to Rue Montorguiel (a Bourdain recommendation) and just walked around, ate pain au chocolat, prosciutto, and cheese. I also saw some weird art, and listened to a band play on the street. From there, I sought out E. Dehillerin (another Bourdain recommendation), a distributor of cooking and pastry utensils; and La droguerie, a yarn and fabric store.

You can find yarn, fabric and notions here

My other explorations included the Marais district, which is where I got lost. From the Bastille Metro, I meant to walk along rue Saint Antoine, but instead walked on rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine - the opposite direction. I ended up ducking into a small bookstore (I forgot to write down its name), where I found the Paris Pratique Par Arrondissement map book my sister wanted. Within Marais, I got lost again as I tried to find my way to I'Île Saint Louis. There were more cute boutiques to shop in, and I also came upon a building which seemed of some historical importance. The sign out front was in French, so I was only able to determine that it had something to do with the Medieval era. From what I have gathered off the internet, the building is a rare Medieval residence.

Historie de Paris building along rue Francois Miron

Paris did have its share of strange moments. At one point, I saw a man walking his dog, and balancing on the dog's back was a white rat. I actually saw this trio the following day, walking along the Champs Élyssés. The other strange moment also happens to be the only time I truly did not feel safe on this entire trip. As I mentioned earlier, I encountered one of the bracelet scam guys. This was at the Sacré Coeur, and it happened at the very bottom of the steps, where there are many scam artists waiting. These guys were aggressive, and I did not like it one bit. They try to tie pieces of string around your wrist, and then demand money, or they may distract you while someone else pickpockets you. I almost left the Sacré Coeur without seeing the basilica, but I made myself stay since I rode the Metro all the way out to Monmartre, and I'm glad I did. My anger and unsafe feeling went away immediately when I walked into the church and heard beautiful singing. The nuns were singing during Sunday Mass. This was one of my favorite moments in Paris.

My other favorite moment was watching the Paris Marathon. I had no idea I was going to be in Paris during the marathon, much less be changing hotels and going from the Left Bank to the Right Bank on the day of the race. I actually tried to avoid the marathon by attempting to get to my new hotel in the morning, but I was running late, and I accidentally got off the Metro two stops too late. I crossed rue de Rivoli just in time - I saw a lone runner pass by, and so I hurried across the street with my suitcase and backpack, and started walking towards my hotel. About five minutes later, a larger pack of runners ran by, and then came the masses. Seeing the Paris marathon was amazing, and I want to run this race some day.

Marathon de Paris

My four nights in Paris weren't nearly enough. I want to go back and spend my time there at a truly leisurely pace. I miss hearing people saying "bonjour" and "bonsoir." And yes, I want to eat the food and drink the wine. Although, next time, I won't be buying the ridiculously over-priced bottles of Orangina. And in case I haven't convinced you, you should go. It's an easy city to get around. People speak English, and even in the areas lean on tourists you will find at least one person who speaks just enough English. Seriously, the food is fantastic, as is the wine. There is an immense amount of art. There is history. I could keep going, but you should stop reading, just go to Paris.

Paris from the Arc de Triomphe

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Europe Day 8: Prague

Prague Castle from St. Nicholas Tower
Less than 24 hours. That is all I had in Prague. It wasn't much, but it was enough to do some decent sightseeing and exhaust myself with all kinds of walking.

Someone told me Prague would be tough because fewer people spoke English there, but it was actually an easy city for this rookie. Getting from the Prague airport into town was a breeze. That's probably because I stayed at the Prague Marriott in Staré Město (Old Town), and the Cedaz shuttle bus drops you off across from the Marriott. It also costs an affordable 150 CZK, which I believe was around USD $7.

From the hotel, I walked through Old Town, across the Charles Bridge, through Malá Strana (Lesser Town) to Prague Castle. It's less than two miles, but the small and twisting streets are mainly made of cobblestones, and Prague is hilly. Originally, I intended to tour Prague Castle and walk along the Charles Bridge, but in Lesser Town, I ended up also climbing the St. Nicholas Tower and going into the Church of St. Nicholas. In a way, this was a mistake because my detour left me only two and a half hours at Prague Castle, so I could not rent the audio tour (it's a three-hour-plus tour). But, I don't regret it at all.

The cobblestone streets
If you go up the church tower, you get a great view of Prague Castle, Lesser Town, Vlatava River, all the way to Old Town. However, it is very cramped and steep. I do not recommend this if you are afraid of heights, or claustrophobic.

Charles Bridge from St. Nicholas Tower
Touring St. Nicholas was amazing, but it was so weird to pay a nun an admission fee. St. Nicholas is a baroque church, so "ornate" doesn't even begin to describe it. At this point in my trip, I began to realize that even the most beautiful Catholic churches in the U.S. are nothing compared to Europe.

Inside the Church of St. Nicholas
From St. Nicholas, I followed the street signs to Prague Castle. I bought the "short visit," so I could only get into St. Vitus, the Royal Palace, St. George's Basilica, and Golden Lane. The Daliborka Tower is supposed to be an option, but for some reason I skipped it. It was a nice contrast to see the Gothic cathedral, St. Vitus, after the Baroque style of St. Nicholas. Though I felt rushed at Prague Castle, and desperately wished I had an audio guide, it was quite an experience. At one point I realized just how cool it was to be walking around in what was seriously a castle. I mean, this UNESCO World Heritage site was a legitimate fortification with churches, courtyards, streets, homes, and towers. After touring the castle, I took a page out of my sister Mindy's book, and took a ridiculous amount of pictures of the view and St. Nicholas from the castle's hill. What? It's a long pathway with so many opportunities for picturesque photos.

View from Prague Castle grounds
I actually also took my time with the view from the castle because I was trying to wait for dusk so I could walk along the Charles Bridge and because Frommer's says, "The best times to stroll across the bridge are early morning and around sunset, when the crowds have thinned and the shadows are more mysterious." Unfortunately, the cold got to me (it was nearly as cold as Berlin), and I couldn't make myself stick around for dusk during daylight savings. I did climb to the top of the observation tower on the Old Town side of the bridge. This too was a cramped and steep experience. But, the views from the top are worth it if you don't fear tight spaces and heights.

St. Lutigarde statue along the Charles Bridge
After all this, I found my way to hard-to-locate restaurant, and ventured back to my hotel at night. It was safe, but I probably should not have walked so far in the dark as a solo traveler. My parents and sisters are probably not very happy right now, so I should add that I stuck to the main streets, and was very aware of my surroundings. It did not take long to get back to the main part of town, and I did get to see the Astronomical Clock lit up at night.

The Astronomical Clock at night