• Bruxelles, The Little Kingdom

    Wednesday, 10th of June

    With time in Paris almost over and an early afternoon train time, Wednesday morning was a lazy time. All we had to do was make our way back to the train station so we could travel to another train station in Paris that would allow us to travel to Brussels (which is spelled Bruxelles locally). I don’t know why the TGV and Eurostar lines run out of different train stations, but it is a bit of a hassle to have to go out to the edge of a city to catch a train. This train was a bit nicer than the train from London to Paris, despite the fact that this train was operated by SNCF, the French national railway that also operated the RER (commuter rail) trains that went to Versailles. This train was also a couple of minutes late into the station which meant we were also a couple minutes late to leave. We still arrived in Brussels on time thanks to a long stop in Lille Europe which was built into the scheduling, I guess. It was a bit strange to see how little security there was for the trains. No one checked our bags. No metal detectors. No one even checked our tickets until we had crossed into Belgium. This train was also trilingual, with announcements in French, German, and English.

    Much of the city of Brussels seemed to be the same way, with things such as directional signs or advertisements in any or all of those languages. A bit different from Paris where everything appeared to be in French all of the time. Brussels was much flatter than any city so far, less dirty than Paris, and definitely felt like a smaller (but still bustling) city. The hostel appeared to be a converted factory of some sort and had a canal-front view!

    Dinner was with a view. It was on a nice little square. Not sure what the name of the square was or what the purpose was for the cool building in the middle of it, but off to one side there was a Marriott with a McDonald’s on the ground floor, which I found funny, since you would never see those chains together in the states. Belgian beer (Rodenbach) was good. Belgian lasagna was good, mostly because nothing stuck out on the menu as being a particularly Belgian dish. Belgian chocolate was good, especially with Belgian milk that was hard to find. Belgian waffles (the morning of the 11th for breakfast) were good.

    There was palace located near the center of Brussels. It looked very big, but it was hard to tell how much of it was actually the palace. It had some large gardens out front, but it was getting close to dark and they were not lit too well.

    While the city was far less dirty than Paris, it did seem like Brussels tolerated graffiti more, as there was some on a few statues we walked by.

    Belgium is where I also started to realize that every country has a different siren sound on their emergency vehicles. Here are the rankings from best to worst so far:

    1. Belgium
    2. Britain
    3. France
    4. Netherlands

    And some pictures!

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  • More Paris Adventures

    Monday, 8th of June

    A couple of must-see places remained on the list for Paris, the Louvre and Versailles. The first was closed Tuesday and the latter was closed Monday, so that helped figure out our schedule a bit.

    Once again came a hike across the city to our destination. Even though it was still morning, there was a very long line outside of the Louvre. That famous pyramid out in front of the structure is the security access point with all of the ticket counters located under it. Neat idea but the light colored stone they finished the inside with made it really warm and too bright by afternoon. The Louvre was by far the most extensive museum on the trip so far. It had massive wings and the whole place seemed like one huge maze. You would think you were going in one direction, only to find a dead end or that you were back where you already were or that you went in a completely different direction. The works of art were impressive and varied, of course, but there were just so many to take it that it was difficult to difficult to comprehend all of it at once. I should also point out that pretty much everything in the museum was a classic. It was very rare to see something newer than late 19th century and nothing there was even close to modern art. There were plenty of sculptures too. We probably spent a good five hours at the museum.

    Notre Dame was relatively close by, so it was the next stop. Another long line, but it moved the fastest of any line I have ever seen. The bells did not seem to have any rhythm to them, going off at random times like 34 after the hour. The church was very different from Westminster Abbey in London. There were far fewer monuments to people and far less clutter over all. There were more displays on Christ (and the occasional saint) with just very few plaques dedicated to any person, it was free to enter, and they allowed photography. There were also more aggressive and frequent requests for donations and there was a little store in one corner of the church.

    Later in the evening was another hike, but this time to a nearby place. The Sacre Cœur was located in the same Arrondisment (that’s French for administrative district) as the hostel, but it was up a large hill. At least the stairs helped make the climb a bit easier. The location on the top of the hill helped make the SC (because I am not typing out that oe everytime) more impressive compared to its surroundings. One of the strange things about it was the street vendors out in front selling Heineken. Street vendors had sold some other things at other places, but never cans of beer. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was near sunset and a large crowd had gathered in the area to take in the sight of Paris from above at night. I liked this church the best out of the large ones we had toured so far. It was only 125 years old though, so maybe it had not had the time to become cluttered and deteriorated like some of the other ones. The area around the church was nice too. There were plenty of artists around the area, and as I later found out, the area had been home to artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, and Dali.

    Tuesday, 9th of June

    The last day in Paris would be spent at Versailles. Before getting there, a couple pieces of train business had to be taken care of. First, activation of the Eurail passes so we could travel throughout Europe for the next month. The other train business was to buy a regional rail ticket out to Versailles, since it is quite a ways from the center of Paris. The subway or regional rail tickets are very small. The first train was very crowded, far more than any train had been in London. Yes, that even includes the double decker train cars. Overall, the subway experience in Paris was pretty poor. The maps of the route did not include all of the stops. The trains were dirty. A lot of them had graffiti on the outside, some also had it on the inside. At least we were not being told to mind the gap every few seconds, even though these trains had far more gap between them and the platform.

    From the station, it was about a five minute walk to the palace. The line outside was very long, but it wasn’t even the line for tickets. That line was much shorter, but it was still annoying to have to wait in two different lines. Extravagant doesn’t even begin to describe Versailles. Gold leaf everywhere. At least I assume things were just covered in gold leaf and not solid gold! We went through the apartments first, which is an awkward name for rooms that were often large enough to live comfortably in just by themselves. There was plenty of art in the house, of course, but the ceilings had some of the best art. The palace was not the only thing at the palace. There was also an extensive area covered with gardens. The front half of the gardens were geometric and had patterns made out of their hedges. Almost all of them featured statues near the middle of the pattern and a good portion also had fountains. They only turn the fountains on during summertime Tuesdays. In case you forgot, this section of writing covers Tuesday, so we got to see some of the fountains while they were running! They also do not run all day on Tuesdays, just for an hour in the morning and for about the same time in the afternoon. Some of the fountains were very impressive, and others they just didn’t turn on, I guess. Past the fountain and hedge areas was even more of the estate and even more parkland, but by that time we felt that we had seen enough of Versailles.

    I am trying a new way of adding pictures. Hopefully this means lot more pictures, as they’ll come from my camera and not my phone this way.

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  • Bonjour Paris, land of six story buildings

    Bonjour!

    Paris is the next stop on the journey across Europe. It was a short 2 and a half hour ride from London. A good portion of the English side was tunnels but almost all of the French side was open countryside. The row I was on did not really have much of a view at all thanks to a window pillar. The train also felt a bit old, and it was probably one of the original Chunnel trains from 1999 or so. There were a few obvious things that made Paris different from London almost as soon as you step out of Gare Nord:

    – They drive on the right (and correct) side of the road
    – There are a lot more Citroens, Renaults, Peugots, and motorcycles
    – The average car is not as nice (many more older and/or dented cars) and they are much smaller
    – Almost all the buildings are five or six stories above ground, and they look almost identical. Whatever shop is at ground level keeps them interesting and varied.
    – Far more taxis than buses.
    – Taxis can be anything. This morning I saw a Tesla, (the electric car which is something like $75k in the US) being used as a taxi!
    – Sometimes lines are not painted between traffic lanes, but first you would have to get to a street capable of having more than one lane of traffic
    – Parking is all done with the flow of traffic. Many cars in London would park against traffic, which made it even harder to figure which way traffic was going.
    – Graffiti was nearly nonexistent in London but on almost everything here.
    – Trashcans and trash were not around much in London. There are at least two trashcans on each block here and there is trash almost everywhere.
    – We are nowhere near the business district so it feels a lot more like one huge neighborhood here.

    So after leaving the station was the search for the hostel… which was supposedly a fifteen minute walk from the station. It felt more like 45, although part of that might have been me getting backpack fatigue. I had my weight distributed better than when I had left home and for the first trip in London, but it was still quite heavy! This hostel room is much smaller, but is also only meant for three people… and it is a good thing there is not a third person because it is already a tight squeeze for two people and two backpacks worth of stuff. It seems fairly well set for a hostel though as it was obviously redone in the past few years, has incredibly slow wifi, and at each bed there is a USB port for charging, a plug, and a reading light. The things at the bed were also at the hostel in London so I will be expecting them at every hostel, as they are pretty nice things to have right at your bed. This place does not have a shelf though, so I have to improvise and put my phone on this unknown appliance beside and below my bed. As a bonus, this room also came with a tower fan. I don’t think every room gets this luxury item to help with the fact there is no air conditioning. I am not really expecting air conditioning at any of these places because you would really only need it for a couple hours in the afternoon. The tower fan is especially nice because there is a lot more street noise in Paris and the walls and door also do not keep sound out of the room. So it remained on for the entirety of the first night.

    Sunday, 7th of June

    Since we had planned to not use the metro as much in Paris (foreignness, theft concerns, etc.) we had planned out our route the night before: hostel to Eiffel Tower in the morning to the Arc de Triomphe and down Champs-Elysees until it ended and then back up to the hostel. Since it was Sunday morning, there was not much activity in the city. Eventually came upon a street market somewhat near the Eiffel Tower. This market had a french bakery which meant I had a french pastry for breakfast. I am not sure what it was exactly, but it was filled with chocolate and delicious. It was not a Chocolat au Pain because I meant to get one of those too but the shopkeeper did not catch my pointing at it.

    Finally around 11 or so we finally made it to the Tower! Just in time to stand in line for 20 minutes or so to buy tickets. I am kind of surprised that the lines were not longer, but I guess the ticket line for taking the stairs would be shorter and maybe the recent bad press has had some effect on their business. Speaking of business, I was surprised to find out that it was only 5€ to get to the second floor. The views from the tower are amazing. It really is quite a climb but you can see practically the entire city from the first floor. That is part of the effect of having a uniform building height that almost every building in the city is built to: you can see very far compared to if it was surrounded by other tall buildings. It also made me realize just how far we had walked because you can easily see the Sacre Cœur set on a hill. It is probably an actual 15 minute walk from the hostel. The only really well policed area is directly under the tower, and even then there are throngs of street vendors selling the same goods: miniature Eiffel Towers and selfie sticks. Thank goodness those sticks have become popular (you see them nearly everywhere over here) because it gave them something to diversify their offerings. Street vendors are even thicker outside the tower area, along with people trying to get you to sign petitions (Excuse me, do you speak English? is how all of them start) which of course is another way to try to extract money from tourists. There were also the occasional cup games, guys selling the same miniature robot dogs, and drinks of various sorts. I was surprised to find that there really is not any security that keeps you away from the tower. There are plenty of checks to go up in the actual tower, but there is no sort of check of anyone walking around on the ground.

    All of the hiking worked up an appetite, so I was off to eat lunch across the Seine near some fountains and a huge building that had an unclear purpose. The path from the tower to the arc was far easier as it was just a single turn and not a bunch of turns as roads end. The Arc de Triomphe is another amazing sight. First, it is in the middle of a massive traffic circle. Since pedestrians, especially thousands an hour cannot cross a six or more lane circle, there is a tunnel that leads under the road and to the middle where the arc is! It is not all that big in scale, but the location and attention to detail in the monument really make it extraordinary.

    The Arc marks the beginning of the Champs-Elysees, which is like Piccadilly Circus’s more sophisticated cousin. It seemed focused on French brands. All the major French car companies (listed above in the list of differences) had showrooms, along with Toyota and Mercedes Benz. I tried getting in one of those one person cars at the Renault store. I do not fit in a one person car. The showroom theme seemed to carry over to the rest of the street. Stores did not seem as big or like flagships for most brands as they had been in London, but were definitely not ordinary stores for most of them. This street was also much wider and straighter than in London. The majority of the street itself was also shut down for some reason this afternoon, which made it much easier to cross the street from store to store. Once the stores ended, there was a massive market that had to stretch for at least half a mile along the sidewalks of both sides of the street. If that market is a regular thing, it should go in one of those things to do in Paris books because the scale was just enormous.

    At this point, much of the route back to the hostel was the same as it had been in the morning. From the Concorde monument (an obelisk in the middle of a traffic circle) to an old church that the University of Notre Dame (yes the one in the US) Glee Club had performed at today to the Moulin Rouge, which is less than five minutes from the hostel. This was also a good time to grab dinner, and I decided to try out some French fast food from a place named Quick. They had ordering kiosks inside, which meant I could older everything in English! Very good for fast food. From there, it was back to the hostel where I wrote everything up to this point while I rested.

    Photo time! I figured out how to get photos working on this blog. For now, they’ll come from my phone, so while they will not be as nice of quality, I can still share some of my experience.

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    Above is the contrast at Renault’s store. Not pictured is the peppermill section of the Peugeot store. I guess they invented the peppermill and still sell them today… along with cars.

    Au revoir,
    Paul

  • London – Museum Mania and More

    I’m writing this on a train leaving London. Also figured out what minding the gap means: some stations are round, the trains are not round, and therefore a gap is created. New York and a couple other places have the same problem, but have created gap filling devices. I have also noticed that some lines do not have gaps at all. I think almost all of the major lines were covered in various journeys across the city, including these lines: Bakerloo, Central, Circle, Hammersmith and City, District, Piccadilly, Jubilee, Northern, and Victoria lines. According to my phone, despite all of these Underground trips, I still managed to walk 106,000 steps or 20 hours in London.

    Thursday, 4th of June

    We kicked off the morning by heading to a series of museums. Looking at a map, it was clear that the Natural History Museum, and National Science Museum were located very near to each other.

    The first museum of the day was the Natural History Museum. It was pretty grand in scale, but rather boring as it felt like a large Science City, and it was clear that some parts hadn’t been updated for more than a few years. I guess we made it through the natural disasters section. Since we can learn about earthquakes and volcanoes in America, I realized that the museum probably wouldn’t offer too many interesting insights into anything. We did not even go through more than a floor or so before giving up and heading for another museum.

    On the way, I had seen another large museum across the street called the Victoria and Albert Museum. It wasn’t on the itinerary, but was free and looked massive from the outside so we decided to go in and check it out. Immediately became clear that it was far more exciting the Natural History Museum. It seemed to have a bit of everything. Part of it was art, part of it was classic sculpture, part of it was “antiques”, basically random artifacts from any culture that has existed the last few hundred years, and they even had a whole wing dedicated to ironwork! This museum had over half a dozen large works from Raphael and the front of an entire house from the 1600s!

    After lunch was the National Science Museum, which was just as massive as the other museums. Plenty of things from space exploration to machines to interactive exhibits. Once again, it was too big to see it all in one visit, especially after seeing parts of two other massive museums in the same day.  Highlights included a massive steam turbine and the machine that operated the Greenwich Time Service for a few decades. On the creepier side was a computer operated euthanasia machine used in Australia during the 1990s. This museum was particularly overrun with school kids. Many other places were overrun with school kids, but this place especially. It is also apparent that a good portion of the school groups are not speaking English. We have run into a few large groups of obviously American kids, but they tend to be older, high school aged at least, compared to the European groups which are probably no older than 10 years for most of them.

    From the last museum was a hike across Hyde Park. London has many parks, but this seems to be the crown jewel of them. Nice landscaping everywhere, a lake full of people using pedal boats, a couple of rose gardens, etc. The coolest part was the fountain for Princess Diana. It was a big ring set into a hill, and shallow enough to put your feet into the water that was moving pretty quickly. It had an uneven surface in some areas to create rapids, and the sides varied in width and height so it wasn’t just a plane ring. Plenty of kids of all ages were playing in the water. I also saw a Bugatti while waiting to cross a street near the edge of the park.

    At the far end of Hyde Park was Piccadilly Circus. The area around it seemed to be the British version of Times Square. I guess we headed up the main shopping street, which was full of stores. It seemed to have the European flagship stores for a lot of brands. We went in a few of them, including the five level Nike store that had a live DJ. That’s another thing, nearly every store along there had two or more levels! Dinner was at a nice pub at Oxford Circus, which appeared to be a continuation of Piccadilly Circus except that it had food conveniently located one block off of the main drag.

    Friday, 5th of June
    It was a bit soggy in the morning, with a fifty percent of showers for the rest of the morning. We decided to brave the wet weather and head for the Tower of London. The tower beat my expectations. The tour guide was very witty and full of information. The tour guides are veterans – they have to have at least 22 years of military service, a certain rank, and a good conduct medal to even be considered for the position. I think they called them Yeoman Warders. They get some perks as part of the job, like living on site in a row of houses tucked against the outer wall of the Tower site and them and two generations of their children are eligible to be buried in the chapel onsite, along with hundreds of unidentified graves. And they get to wear cool suits with the queen’s initials on them. Just kidding, the suits look like they belong in a time period a few hundred years ago. There was plenty to explore at the Tower. The interior of the main tower itself had obviously been redone many times but it looked authentic from the outside. They were working on the front doors (because the tower only has two I guess?), so the only other entrance was through scaffolding set up to a 2nd story window on the side of the building. A weird entrance, for sure. Inside the tower was a museum of sorts set up to recognize everything that had gone on at the tower grounds over its very long history.

    And as I write this sentence, the train has officially entered into French soil.

    Back to the tower: besides the main tower and chapel, there were small towers built all along the inside wall. A couple were restored to ancient appearance. They started to look the same after a while. There was a large building for the crown jewels. So many ornate things were in that room with it! Finally, there was a little torture dungeon at the castle. Kind of contrasted with everything else. Hiking around the Tower the entire morning had worked up quite an appetite. I had my first fish and chips experience. I got a piece of fish so big that it didn’t fit into the tray. Think of a slightly larger than normal hot dog tray, and then a piece of cod that does not fit into that. It was also a bit strange as it was the only place that did not include VAT in their advertised price. That is one of the major differences over here in pricing: no guessing on how much tax is going to add to the cost because it is already included in the sale price anywhere from the pint of milk at the grocery to buying London Eye tickets. After lunch was a rare break.

    Mid afternoon was a trip to Trafalgar Square. It was one of the more bustling places in the city, and that is including Piccadilly, which was packed for blocks and blocks. There were street performers everywhere on the north side of the square. Along the Thames and in the Underground there are musicians, some of them decent. Trafalgar was full of people doing illusions and wearing unlicensed costumes. One magician had a huge crowd. Behind the performers was the National Gallery, once again a huge free museum full of treasures, like a bunch of Monet’s work, and once again too large to take in with a single visit. It was also far more crowded than any of the other museums. The main part of Trafalgar Square outside of the performers and gallery is also cool. There are two fountains with a very large statue in between them and it is pretty easy to climb the base of the statue to get a better look of the area.

    Next was a service at Westminster Abbey, supposedly to hear the organ being played. They did not play the organ, sadly, but the choir made good use of the church acoustics. They also advertised the church service as being an hour long but had everyone out of there in forty minutes, which was also good.

    I am not sure why, but we thought it would be a good idea to walk from the Abbey to the Eye along the Thames. I guess maps of London must not often be scaled accurately. It was a long walk, not to mention the fact that we were still about an hour early even after having dinner at a sit down restaurant. There was a festival going on at the time along the bank of the river near the Eye so there were even more people than normal. The Eye may seem like a tourist gimmick but it turned out to be really neat, especially because of a strategically chosen ticket time to avoid the glaring sun but still allowed time to see everything before dark. There are many tall buildings in London but not many skyscraper type buildings so even a relatively short ferris wheel allows a view of pretty much everything in the city.

    Next, it was back to Piccadilly Circus to see what it was like at night – even more vibrant than during the day! Walked along the main drag until it took us back to Trafalgar Square where the street performers had been replaced by a few groups of people dancing. The fountains were lit up with LEDs that changed color a few times a minute.

    Saturday, 6th of June
    This was a day where we had run out of major things to do in the city. After getting breakfast at a cafe at one of London’s many morning markets was another trip out to Westminster Palace for the changing of the guards. Not sure if something special was going on today, but the ceremony started late and was very elaborate. Probably a 300 piece band and at least that many more on horseback but segmented into a number of groups. And every single person was in uniform. There were only four guards at the door, so that seemed a little excessive. There was a carriage that went by, not sure if the Queen was in it, which could have explained today’s elaborate ceremony. There were also probably 20,000 or more people in the crowd around the plaza outside the palace. Hard to tell how many were tourists.

    Made a stop at St. Paul’s to see it. Saw the Tate Modern across the Thames directly south and decided to go visit it. Very interesting to see what is considered art now. Among the highlights were a mirror (yes, just a mirror), and the highly technical piece that was making a spontaneous, but premeditated cut into a canvas. Not multiple cuts, just a single curved cut. It was also rather unclear why there was a huge open space on one side of the building that spanned all of the levels.

    With that, the time in London came to a close. Just a tube ride back to St. Pancras, and a wait to the train where I wrote 95% of this post (outside of the pictures).

    I am now in Paris finishing this post. The internet is intermittent here, so it looks like there will not be any pictures in this post. If the computers in the lobby are faster, I may use them in the next couple of days and put the pictures out as a separate post.

    Au revoir,
    Paul