Day 8: Barcelona

We woke up, enjoyed a buffet breakfast at the Ibis, and loaded a coach bus for a guided tour of Barcelona. Our tour guide Marina was amazing- she engaged all of us with her natural pep and excitement for her city. Our tour took us past all sorts of beautiful sights and amazing, unique architecture. We drove past the Barcelona Olympic Stadium, built for the 2002 Olympic games, but couldn’t go in; it was closed to prepare for the “Monster Truck Rally”.


We passed what was once the city bullring- The Arenas de Barcelona- a beautiful, round structure made of brick. Bullfighting, according to Marina, “is no longer popular and no longer allowed in our city. The building was closed for twenty years, but reopened now as a shopping mall.”

We passed by the monument honoring Joan Miro, one of the renowned surrealist artists of Barcelona. The art in this town is simply magnificent. I would love nothing more to decorate my entire house in a Barcelona-inspired manner- but I’ll write more about this when I get to my “Gaudi” praise!



As we made our way up the winding road, to the top of Montjuic, we looked to the docks and saw the world’s largest cruise ship, the Harmony of the Seas, carrying 6,000 passengers and 2,000 employees, in port. Even from the top it was massive!

Our first “get off the bus” moment was at the top of Monjuic. The view was spectacular- we could see all of Barcelona- the city, the port, the Mediterranean coast, and the Pyrenees boarding the city.


The next stop was the Park de Guell. This park, designed by Gaudi, was on the top of what was once, according to our Marina, “the Muntanya Pelada (bare mountain). Guell hired his friend Gaudi to design a community for the well off on this land that he acquired. Gaudi really outdid himself, and loved the area and moved there himself in 1906.”  We were able to wander leisurely through this park, which has winding walkways that take the visitor through the architecture of Gaudi. A winding tile bench runs the perimeter of the “great square”, where visitors can soak in the sights. Gaudi’s work is both breathtaking and magical. The buildings are enchanting, and seem to literally sparkle as though they were topped with glitter!  One of my favorite parts was Gaudí’s  mosaic salamander, which Marina told us was called “el drac, which means ‘the dragon'”. This salamander was printed up on nearly every tourist item in every shop in Barcelona.


As if things couldn’t get any more amazing, our next stop was at the “piece de la resistance” (I know- wrong city for that descriptor)… the Sagrada Familia- Barcelona’s most renowned (and only) Basilica. When Gaudi was a mere 31 years old, he became the lead architect on this project, mixing his modern flavor with the neoclassicism of the original designs to create something truly unique and honestly spellbinding. Gaudi, who died after being hit by a train at the age of 74, is buried in the Sagrada Familia. This Catholic church, whose name literally means “the holy family” is still only 70% finished. According to Marina, “the city plans to have it completed by 2026, so you must come back!”


Inside the basilica, there are 52 columns which represent the 52 Sundays in a year. The stain glass windows bring in all the colors of the spectrum and run the entire length of the church on both sides. The architecture of the building was evidence of Gaudi’s genius- he used a whole host of geometric inspiration- lots of “oids”- in his constuction: hyperboloids, paraboloids, helicoids, ellipsoids, and conoids to name a few! The man was truly the definition of genius.


After leaving the basilica, we ventured to La Rambla, which is the most famous street in Barcelona. The street has a center section dedicated to artists, florists, and street vendors, while the sides host hotels, shops, and restaurants. There were fascinating sights as well as things that made me do a double take… like the shops selling garden seeds- “penis peppers”, “titty melons”, and other more “adult themed” seeds. The kids were even blushing as they looked at these crazy things!


We were on our own for lunch, so my roommate and I opted for the Cerveceria- a place where we could share several different “tapas”- and enjoyed squid, peppers, cheeses, and some sort of chutney-mango chicken inspired sandwich! Our waiter was a character- dressed in a bowtie and moved like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.


After lunch, we walked the remainder of La Rambla, and made our way to the beach. We enjoyed wandering past the street vendors, and I couldn’t resist purchasing a Spanish tapestry, which we were able to use as a beach blanket as we enjoyed the rest of our afternoon on the beach of the Mediterranean!


We were exhausted by the time we took the hour-long train ride back to the hotel. With 23,000 steps on my fitbit, it was clear that we had “seen the city” with gusto.  I am completely in love with Barcelona. This may be the first place I return to if I should ever get the opportunity- I was mesmerized.

-Heidi

 

 

 

 

Day 7: Paris and into Barcelona

Today felt as though I was on an episode of the Amazing Race! Andre, one of the adults on the trip, lost his passport. He and his wife, Tammy, looked everywhere, but it was gone. I offered to help them so they could split up- Andre could go to file the police report and go to several of the places they had visited, and I would accompany Tammy back to Monmontre to not only check the various businesses, but to check with the police and information center. 

We set off on the metro and got off at Stalingrad. That was a bit unfortunate, because objects on maps are farther than they appear. We had a time constraint- so we had no choice but to power walk the 1.6 miles. The area was a massive departure from the other parts of Paris we frequented for the past three days. There was graffiti on nearly every wall. Trash lined the streets and, in one area, the streets were lined with nothing but men in gangster-style suits just staring at us. “Just don’t make eye contact,” Tammy whispered.

 

The roads were all uphill. We finally made it to the top only to find that we had come to the backside of the Sacre Coerr… And it was 10:45am. We had no time to walk all the way around to the front, so we were left with 390 steps that had to be climbed- FAST! I checked to ensure my nitroglycerin tabs were handy (since being diagnosed with angina, I am highly cognizant of my uphill hiking limitations.) we made it up in decent time- dripping and heaving, but happy to have reached the top.

We retraced their Thursday steps, asking each shopowner, “avez-vous trouve un passeport jeudi ?” (Dos you find a passport on Thursday?) unfortunately, we didn’t find anyone who responded .”Oui! Ici!” We went to the information center to inquire about a police station. We were given instructions to the station serving Monmontre- a 50 meter walk. With time ticking (we had to be back to the hotel- a 45 minute adventure- by 12:30pm.) we made our way to the police station only to learn that it was only open Monday- Friday. The day was Saturday. Ouch. 

We left that area, and hiked up more stairs where we found a metro station. We hopped on the green train. Switched in Jussie to the brown train, and finally on to the pink train. We made it back to the Place de Choicy at high noon, which allowed us to have lunch. 


I had a wonderful panini  fromage. The melted Brie was amazing. The shop embodied all of my favorite elements of the Paris foodie scene- local flavor, fresh patisserie, breads, cheeses… Mega yum!


After lunch, we got on the bus and hit the road for the airport. It was sad saying goodbye to Paris. I love Paris!

We arrived in Barcelona at 9:30pm after a 90 minute flight on Voering Air. We went to our Hotel Ibis and settled in before walking to dinner at a local shopping mall. 


Tomorrow we will tour this beautiful city by the sea! What a trip!

-Heidi

Day 6: Paris

Today we started out our morning with a visit to Notre Dame cathedral. On the way, we saw police boats speeding down the Seine River. The flooding in the city has become a national disaster. So much so that the Louvre, and most other museums had to close their doors to rescue exhibits that were on low floors.


When we arrived at Notre Dame,the gypsies were out in force and there were guards, dressed in camo, holding giant machine guns. The line was already  50 yards long, but it moved surprisingly quick. This place is just stupefying. I plan, before the summer is over,  to reread Hugo’s amazing novel. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) I can’t wait to soak in the care that Quasimodo gave his bell tower, and to revisit the intimate details he shared throughout. To do this with my visit so fresh in my mind will truly make it come to life.


In any case, the cathedral is beautiful. I stared at the outside, at the creepy gargoyles, who’s job are surely more than just gutter tools. Surely they are there, as I read somewhere years ago,to ward off evil. Certainly in Hugo’s great work, they were at least something as freakish as poor Quasi. In any case, the sculptures certainly were unique in creating these creatures. I was so excited to find a wonderful replica of a gargoyle to bring home. Hopefully it doesn’t send my suitcase over the weight limit!

The inside of the Cathedral is a place of beauty, silence, prayer, history, and inspiration. The stained glass windows are remarkable and the candles that are lit throughout provide a sense of peace. A sense that prayers are being sent and hope and faith is still alive.

After leaving the Notre Dame, we headed toward a place called “Laduree”, which Simon has been raving about since we left London for Paris. This place is the “creme de la creme” of all macaroon shops, complete with hanging chandeliers, fancy boxes, and ribbons. When we got there, I couldn’t believe how fancy it was! They had a host of flavor options including things like rose petal, raspberry, lemon, caramel, licorish or chocolate. I purchased two, for 2 euros each: lemon and raspberry. At the risk of sounding completely uncouth, I did not think that the fancy store macaroons were any better than the macaroons I purchased at a carnival style stand behind the Rue de la Paris. (The giant Ferris wheel).
 We wandered down to the Seine to see the mass flooding that is currently plaguing Paris. We ended up crossing over an impressive lock bridge, and heading to lunch in a small cafe. At lunch, I was thrilled to find French onion soup and a plate of Brie with bread.


After lunch we spent the remaining time before dinner enjoying the streets of Paris. At one point, we saw a cavalcade of close to 100 French soldiers on horseback. We heard that the president of S Korea was in town, so the French were pulling out all the stops!



Dinner for the evening was interesting. And whenever I use that word to describe food, it generally means I don’t know what to think. It was called a “composed” salad. I had the non meat option, and it was “composed” of arugula, beignet, Brie cheese, fried potatoes, tomatoes, and tons of cheese squares. Weird combo. Definitely interesting. (The dinners on the tour are served and everyone gets the same thing- only option is meat or no meat.) 


After dinner, we rode the trains back to the hotel and called it a proverbial night!

Tomorrow we get another 1/2 day in Paris before flying to Barcelona. Our train, the TGV, was supposed to get us to Barcelona in 2 1/2 hours, at speeds over 350 mph. Sadly, the floods and the workers’ strikes caused the cancellation of our ride.

Tomorrow will hold new discoveries I’m sure!

-Heidi 

Day 5: Paris

Today began much like the others- a fabulous breakfast (croissants, eggs, nutella, yogurt, fruit, cafe au lait, etc) followed by a proper coach bus. This morning , at 9am sharp,  we went on a city bus tour of Paris with tour guide Anne. I really liked her, and she knew the little “Oh, Champs Elysees” song that I started singing as soon as we neared that famous French Rue!

The tour was all things informative, humorous, and scenic. We passed by some definite “must see” locals, and were given some great vignettes about folklore, history, and architecture.  The first part of the tour included the home of Quasimoto, perhaps better known as Notre Dame Cathedral; we didn’t get out, since we will tour the church on Friday.
After passing Paris’s oldest street, Saint Jacques, as well as the Sorbonne and the High School of Victor Hugo, we drove by the Pantheon, which is the place where famous intellectuals go to be “panthenized”. The list of these heroes was long, but I remember her mentioning Hugo, Braille, Marie Curie, Dumas, and Voltaire.


We drove past the Observatory of Paris, the Tuileries (pronounced “twilleries’) Gardens, and the Louvre. We were able to see the “modern” pyramid entrance to the Louvre- it was hard to miss- it seemed highly incongruous with the rest of this massive medieval art museum.

Speaking of the Louvre, it had to close this afternoon because of the massive flooding going on in Paris along the Seine River. Apparently, all of the art exhibits on the basement level had to be moved to higher ground. Needless to say, our group will not be seeing the Mona Lisa during this trip. (We did learn, however, that the French historians believe that the reason she was smiling was because she was in the King’s bathroom. That’s where Davinci liked to paint.)

Our next stop took us down the Champs Elysees all the way to the Muses D’Orsay, which is the art museum home to the likes of Degas, Monet and many others. We passed La Petite Palais as well as Le Grand Palais. We also passed Les Invalides, perhaps most easily distinguished by it’s black roof. This place was protected by two guards, both with machine guns at their sides, which was not suprising since it is a military museum.

Our stop at the Eiffel Tower was amazing. I don’t think anyone ever tires of looking at the Eiffel Tower- all 1000 feet of it. I bought a replica of it, but rather than 1000 feet, which makes it the tallest tower in Paris, mine is rather Liliputians.


The tour ended at the Arch de Triomphe at the end of the Champs Elysees. From here, I found a backpack for only 12 Euros. This thing truly made my day. The store, decathlon, was really reasonable, and their toiletes were free, which was a win! (Even McDonald’s make you pay to potty!)


I wandered down the Champs Elysees. The kids were to meet me at the Rue de la Paris (aka the giant Ferris Wheel in front of the Tuileries Garden). I enjoyed the looking at the shops, stores, and people that I passed by as I sauntered down the famous French street. I stopped just inside the Place de la Concord to enjoy a crepe avec boerr et sucre. Ooh la la! It was amazing.


After lunch, I met the kids back at the Ferris Wheel, and we all agreed that going up in it was a wonderful plan. We paid the 12 euros and got in. It was a fabulous view of both Tuileries Garden and the Eiffel Tower.


The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering my way back to the Opera where I planned to meet the rest of the group. Once we were all corralled, we went to dinner at a very unique pizza place called Flam’s. Here we had salad and unique thin pizza – all we could eat. Since they segregated us by carnivores and vegetarians, I sat across from one traveler, part of our tour but not our group- who we have aptly dubbed the ice queen. She criticized the cuisine from beginning to end- so much so that I nearly chucked my vegetarian ways to the curbside in order to eat cows and pigs with with more jolly company!


After dinner we made our way to Montmartre, home of the awe inspiring Sacre Coerr Cathedral. We had an hour to explore the local art scene at the top, enjoy some gelato, and visit the church. 


We made it back to the hotel by 11pm- the kids were exhausted and I had walked nearly 25,000 steps!

 

Day 4: London to Paris by way of Eurostar Train

This morning, we left our pleasant suburban Hilton Croydon hotel, armed with our luggage, passports, and a bagged breakfast.  Simon, our group’s guide, called it a “boxed” breakfast which I found to be ironic coming from someone who has told us again and again how “proper” the British are with their speech. He even corrected us in our pronunciation of the word France. “It is “Frahnce”, not France” (which rhymes with ants.) in any case, the breakfast was served in a most definite brown paper bag.


We arrived at the St Pancras station with plenty of time to spare. The train station was a bustling place, loaded with shops and eateries. We were given time to buy a lunch to eat lunch on train. I found a primo “M & S” shop loaded with mouthwatering options. I ended up with some nuts and berries, and a brow and grape sandwich.

  Speaking of sandwich… One of the travelers on the tour, a JJ from Wyoming, asked whether or not a hot dog constitutes a sandwich. I want to mull that over a bit more before I respond, but I believe I lean towards no.


We next made our way through immigration, got our passports stamped, and boarded the Eurostar. This train is allegedly the 2nd fastest train in the world, and it took us from London to Paris, under the English Channel, in under three hours.

The precarious thing about train transportation is that you have to have all your belongings with you- suitcases and all. Handling all these bags in tight quarters can be pretty tricky. I actually had to schlepp my suitcase back a train car to find it a home for the ride.


Upon arrival in Paris, we loaded into our coach bus and headed on to our hotel- the Palatino- one block from the Porte de Choicy train station. The hotel is clean bordering on sterile, fully loaded with apartment style features, and seems to have a friendly staff. 


We dropped our bags and hit the train to the Paris Opera. We spent some free time wandering the area. I stopped to buy my first crepe of the trip. The opera was beautiful and we enjoyed live street  entertainment. Sadly and very unfortunately, one student in the group was targeted by a loose- bowelled pigeon.

We dined at a place called Chez Claude. I had spinach tortellini and a slice of chocolate pie fit for the palate of a king. The servers spoke only broken English, so I got to converse with “Marie” in my “needs practice” Francais.

After dinner we set out on foot to Montparnasse, the lone sky scraper in Paris. This was a plan B after our original plan was to take a boat ride down the river. Unfortunately, major river Seine flooding prevented this plan. The 56 story building boasts the fastest lift: in 38 seconds riders make it to the top! The view from the top was spectacular, albeit foggy.

What a day!