One can never have too many gargoyles… Paris, France 2018

I’m a sucker for gargoyles. I know that my affinity for these little winged gutter spouts would not be the desired response of the cathedral builders, but I find them irresistible. I told myself, as I neared the city, that I didn’t need to buy any Paris goodies since it was less than two years since I last visited my favorite city. I knew, however, as soon as I saw the tiny, spitting gargoyle, that he would have to join my growing flock of gargoyles at home in Atlanta. In the early days of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many believed that the gargoyles scared away evil spirits. If this is true, why WOULDN’T I want to line my house with them? can one ever have too many gargoyles?

We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar train from London. Once we got on board, the trek was swift and seamless. Getting on the train with all of our luggage, however, is a major hassle. Hoisting my suitcase up the stairs practically killed me, and I had to schlep it to another train car because the one I was assigned was completely full. Needless to say, if you travel by train- less is best.  It was interesting to

We left the train station by coach bus, and rode into the city. I felt a smile working it’s way out of my soul as we made our way into my all-time favorite city. There is a special vibe in Paris that just sits right with me. It is like no other city. I don’t know if my love of Paris stems from my French roots or whether it is my love of the food, music, and art- but there will never be a day when I’d turn down a trip to Paris.

We passed by all sorts of wonderful landmarks-des Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Dome Des Invalides & Tomb of Napoleon. For some reason, I can’t see the Champs Elysees without breaking out into song… “Oh… Champs-Elysees!”. (Later in the trip I irritated Simon by singing “Istanbul was Constantinople” each time he spoke of Turkey.)  We got out of the bus along the backside of the Place de Trocadero, and were able to get some beautiful (and comical) photos of the Eiffel Tower. It was a bit hazy, but we were happy that the predicted rain stayed away.

We walked back to the bus and I noted the trash cans that contain clear bags. These trash cans were the solution to keeping bombs out of trash cans. Some cities have simply pulled trash cans all together- seems like this is a better way of keeping the streets clean- and safe!

The second part of our day was a tour of the Palace of Versailles.  This place is amazing. Once a mere hunting lodge, Louis the XIII decided that he wanted it to be his residence, so he expanded it to the size it is now- a palace of 2,300 rooms! It remained a palace until The French Revolution. During the Revolution, much of the art was stashed in the Louvre. Once the war ended, the art was returned to Versailles, which, for a while, was a storage facility. Eventually, Versaille transitioned into it’s next and final phase: a museum.

Before we began our tour of the garden and the palace, we went to lunch at a little outdoor cafe next to the Palace. I ordered the French Onion Soup and it was perfect. After lunch we got ice cream, and headed to tour the gardens. It was 120 degrees (hyperbolic- yes), but I was eager to explore.

When we walked toward the gardens, I honestly had no preconceived notion about what we would see. I knew that there would be vast gardens, but certainly didn’t realize that they would span as far as the eye could see. The gardens were immediately surrounding the Palace, and the park stretched back from the fountain for what seemed miles.  Apparently, Louis XIV was so proud of the gardens that he even welcomed the public in to enjoy them.

The fountains, which were not turned on when we were wandering through, had all sorts of interesting statues in the centers. My favorite was the angry fish… probably because it is almost gargoylesque! The gardens contain 221 works of art, making it the largest open air sculpture museum in the world, according to the Chateau Versailles brochure.

Inside, the rooms are clad in beautiful art, with busts and full figure statues at every turn. The Hall of Mirrors was not only beautiful, but also was cutting edge. The idea of using mirrors along the walls of a room was originated at Versailles. It enabled them to use dim lights, and those lights reflected in the mirrors to light the room.

After Versailles, we headed back to the city to enjoy a river cruise down the Seine River. Travel mate Stephanie skipped the Versailles experience to meet up with her cousins. She texted me to ask which dock we were meeting at, and I asked Simon, who said it was directly under the Eiffel Tower, and added, “It is blindingly obvious. Even an amoeba from Saturn could find it.”

She found us, and said a teary farewell to relatives she doesn’t see often enough.

After a disappointing cruise down the Thames in 2017, I was not expecting much from our evening cruise down the Seine. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the views and experience! The cruise was amazing! It was a gorgeous night, and local Parisians were lining the river bank enjoying wine and cheese. These locals waved to us as we passed by, and the students on board waved and even got a “wave” going after going under each bridge.

This video shows the excitement the kids had on board the river cruise! What an excellent part of our adventure!

 

Our hotel was far from convenient to the city… it was located all the way out by Euro Disney. The check-in process was a complete nightmare and took well over an hour, but Simon, our guide, kept his composure and didn’t give up until we were all taken care of. The view out our hotel window was really nice, and the windows opened all the way, so we slept with the fresh air of France filling our airways… (Brooke and Donica, anti-bug people, finally gave in and enjoyed the fresh air after realizing there was no working A/C).  There were several restaurants within walking distance of this hotel, one that sold me a delicious crepe after 11:00pm! Crepe avec sucre et beurre… DELICIOUS!

The next morning we headed to the Louvre. Since this would be my third visit in three years, I was determined to find new art to appreciate. I wandered and found all sorts of works that I had not noticed before. The Death of Cleopatra was one that really stood out… what a shocking piece when you focus in and realize that it is a snake biting her nipple. Not sure there’s much realism in her expression- I don’t think a woman would be so calm in that instance… Was it that women had to hide their emotions? Never let on what sort of pain you might be hiding? Or was it that the artist thought there might even be some sort of pleasure here? The title, however, reminds us that Cleopatra WAS killed by a snake bite, so this is really a sad piece.

I also enjoyed taking a closer look at the The Department of the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. The sculptures represent the thoughtful nature of the ancient civilizations. Not only do they seem to represent thinking and focusing, but they also represent a need to understand how things work. Truly fascinating.

Of course no trip to the Louvre is complete without beholding the Greek goddess Aprhodite, better known as the Venus de Milo  (the woman with no arms), and the Mona Lisa. The middle statue below is La Pallas de Velletri- a statue of Athena. This one is a famous replica of an original from Naples, Italy.

We had lunch in a wonderful cafe- Le Marmiton de Lutece. I had a three-cheese fondue that absolutely melted in my mouth! We sat outside and enjoyed the people watching and the atmosphere. I snapped a photo of the inside when I went to use the toilets (never called bathrooms or rest rooms).

The toilets seem to always be found in the cellars at the bottom of tiny, often winding stairways…

One of my last highlights in Paris was a visit to the historic “Shakespeare and Company” bookstore. There was a line to get in, and I enjoyed a well-practiced accordian performance while I waited. Inside, I found lots of interesting selections, and really wanted to bring home the book detailing the history of the store, but my brain went back to the weight of my suitcase and the struggle I had getting it onto the train. In the end, I came out of the store empty-handed…

We met back at Notre Dame to meet up and board the bus that would take us to Italy.

Our train to Milan was cancelled due to yet another Paris strike. (My train was cancelled due to a strike in 2016 when we were headed to Barcelona, but that year they rerouted us via airplane.) This year, we were assigned what would become the world’s longest bus ride. It was an overnight ride, so we needed to sleep… but when that bus pulled into the train stop in Milan, Italy, no one on board had more than a couple hours… Simon was quick to tell Stephanie to “stop faffing”, and the bus driver had to stop every two hours.

Au Revoir, Paris… until next time!

-HC

Next up: A Taste of Italy…

Finding Shakespeare: London 2018

There are times in life when we find things we don’t even realize we are seeking. This happened to me just a few days ago- in London. I found The Bard- the most famous of all writers. He was living in a tiny metal shop owned by a wheeling and dealing Asian man in Covent Garden. I saw Little Willy Shakespeare and knew at once that I would have to take him home…

I arrived in London after an overnight flight on Virgin Atlantic airways. As a first-time passenger on Branson’s renowned fleet, I was impressed from the time I stepped on board. The music piping through the speakers was reminiscent of my teen years in the 1980s. The Violent Femmes and the Clash were just a few of the “boarding tunes” we enjoyed as we found our way to our seats.

On the bus ride into the city center, I enjoyed the scenery as we hugged “the embankment ” which runs along the Thames River. We drove past Cheyne Walk, a place where many famous people, including Mick Jagger, have lived. The houses of the rich and famous in the area are marked with blue circle plaques baring their name.

We stopped in Westminster for lunch, and took our sandwiches to the Victoria Embankment Gardens, where we sat and enjoyed lunch with the locals. Thankful to be able to eat wheat and dairy again, I enjoyed my tomato and cheese sandwich, which I picked up at a local sandwich shop just around the corner.

The park was an interesting array of untouchable green space- with signs warning visitors to stay off the grass… and sloped, shaded areas where sitting was permitted. There were areas with deck-chairs, but they were all occupied. The literary nerd in me was also thrilled to notice a Robert Burns Memorial in the park. (Burns is the “To a Mouse” poet perhaps most famous for one line: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley”).

After our relaxing lunch we found free bathrooms in a McDonald’s, and continued our sightseeing. We passed a bank called Coutts, which is London’s oldest bank. This bank is the very keeper of the royal money, so I’ve learned… often referred to locally as “the queen’s bank”. My mouth dropped when Simon, our tour guide, told us that one must have a $1.5 million minimum deposit to open an account at Coutts. WOW!  I’m sure the service must be simply impeccable…

We also stopped to gawk at the 1600 seat Odeon cinema, which is allegedly the largest in the country. The Odeon is where all the major premiers take place- box office smashes including the likes of Harry Potter and Avatar.

Trafalgar Square, named such in 1830, was next on the agenda. This famous square located outside of the National Gallery, named for Admiral Nelson’s Victory in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, boasts Nelson’s Column, a famous fountain, numerous statues, and four lions set to guard the column.  We wandered past the giant lions, which were brought to the square in 1868. They were designed by an artist named Edwin Landseer, who allegedly took great care to make them as true to life as possible. According to “The Londonist”, however, there was an error to his work. “In real life, lion’s backs are convex, and not concave, when lying down.” (londonist.com) This faux pas is certainly not an error that the average Joe would notice.

I enjoyed the local entertainment from the musicians to the chalk artists. The floating Yodas were still hanging around, reminding me of my last visit with my family who were fascinated by these guys.

With a bustle the likes of Time’s Square, Piccadilly Circus was our next stop. Stephanie, one of my travel buds, got a kick out of “Mr. UK” who was boogie dancing in the entrance to the largest souvenir shop in the area…

Our next stop was at the historical Covent Gardens, on London’s West End, where we had time to snack and shop. The shopping and eating mecca actually came to be back in 1654, and thrives today as a popular place for tourists and locals.

Walking past the flower carts, I imagined Eliza Doolittle holding a bouquet, trying to earn a tuppence… and the crabby and arrogant Professor Higgins muttering, “I have created this thing [Eliza] out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden…”  As a veteran British Lit teacher, I was delighted to be in this place.

As I wandered across the cobblestone piazza, I stopped to watch some street performers acting out a dramatic “chase scene” in front of St. Paul’s.  I stepped into the famed “Apple Market” and enjoyed checking out the wares of local vendors- jewelry, crafts, and art.  I wandered my way to the Far Eastern edge of the area to a market area called Jubilee Hall Market. It was here that I found my trip’s treasure, tucked high on the shelf of a tiny booth run by an ancient Asian man. The three inch Bard is made of solid brass. I was thrilled to talk the seller down from twenty to twelve pounds. Little Willy was the perfect size to fit in my pocket, and I walked away knowing that he would be happy in his new home in America…

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There was some great entertainment inside the covered area of Covent Gardens… and I stopped to enjoy for a little while… I talked to a local guy about the performance, and learned that the people who perform in the gardens actually have to audition- it is not just a free for all!

London is such an entertaining place in which to wander. The humor of the Brits plays out all over the place- a wit I never tire of…

One of our dinners in London was at a Turkish restaurant called Bistro 1, where I had a delicious Falafel and hummus dish…  Another dinner was at an Indian restaurant called Salt’n Pepper. According to our guide Simon, the Brits thrive on Indian cuisine- it is very much a part of the British culture. The food was set up buffet style and was mild and tasty- there was a curry chicken dish and a spinach vegetarian dish- both with rice. I couldn’t stop looking at the beautiful lights decorating the place. I would really love to have one of these beautiful lanterns…

Our second day in London kicked off with a visit to the Tower of London. I was excited to get a chance to return to this place after neglecting to purchase a medieval goblet whence I was here last. I thought about that goblet for two years. As luck had it, the goblet, a replica of King Theobald’s actual chalice, was still available in the Tower Shop, and will now be enjoyed by me for years…

The Tower of London is a fascinating place to explore. This time, I spent time reading about the torture chambers and checking out the prudent armor worn during the reign of King Henry the VIII… (I think the photo speaks for itself).

We ate lunch outside at a place called Argeant’s, next to the Tower Bridge along the Thames. Last time I was in London, I enjoyed their fish and chips and mushy peas, and the quality hadn’t changed a bit!

After lunch, we were scheduled to enjoy a walking tour. Blimey! Our guide for this was a local chap who seemed to have forgotten that we had head sets on so he could easily share all sorts of Interesting tidbits. Much of the walking tour was spent just walking- and listening to air!? Where were the interesting stories? Where was the trivia??

Once the underwhelming walking tour was completed, we continued walking with our far more knowledgeable Simon, who pointed out some interesting morsels including China town, the flag-laden route of the queen, the bird keepers cottage, and the home of Prince Charles and Camilla… which is behind the iron fence in the photo…

I was impressed with the traffic lights in London… in honor of Pride Week, the city had some of the lights portraying two little green men!

Abbey Road was our first stop on our last day in London. Fans flock to the crosswalk where the Beatles photographed their studio album- Abbey Road- and I, a Beatles fan myself, was thrilled to have the opportunity! The road is a busy street, and there is no way to get a photo other than to wait for a lull in the traffic. Once the opportunity strikes, the “crosser” must act fast and hope that whoever takes the photo was accurate. I enjoyed tracing the steps of George, Ringo, Paul, and John, as well as seeing their recording studio.

““And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”- Paul McCartney, The End (Abbey Road)

We walked to Buckingham Palace next, to watch the changing of the guards. On our way there, we had the incredible luck of seeing the Queen drive past us in her maroon Bentley! She was dressed in a hot pink suit with a matching hat.

Just before my time in London was up, I got the opportunity to wander through the National Gallery. I enjoyed the impressionist exhibits and especially enjoyed post- impressionist Van Gogh’s work. (If you ever want to read an amazing account of Van Gogh’s life, check out Lust For Life by Irving Stone!)

London was exciting and it was bittersweet boarding the Eurostar train. I was, however, excited to visit my favorite city in the world next: PARIS!

-HC

Last day in Berlin 2018

As I sit down to think about my last day in Berlin, I’m already on the plane home. One sentiment continues to resonate for me- some of the first words that our tour guide Daniel uttered when we arrived: “Berlin isn’t a beautiful city, but it’s an interesting city.” After spending three full days touring the city, I have to say I agree.

And while on the subject of our tour guide- Daniel was phenomenal. He was a perfect blend of historical knowledge mixed with wit and high energy. When pronouncing the names of the train stops we would need to remember he would say, in his heavy German twang, “you will get off at the Gesundbrunnen stop. That is G-E-S-U-N-D… and more letters!” A clever way to shorten the long names that the Germans seem to attribute to most things.

After breakfast and a final training workshop, we had all afternoon to explore on our own!

I made plans to go up to the top of the TV Tower with two buddies I’d met on the tour- Tim- a special ed teacher from New Mexico and David-an art teacher from south Chicago. These guys wanted to do all the stuff I wanted to do- which was the tower and a half day of what David called an “urban hike”. Several other groups were going shopping and trying to stay out of the below freezing temps, but I wanted to explore and see more of what Berlin had to offer!

We ordered tickets in advance for the tower tour, and made our way to the subway. The Berlin subway, by the way, is called the U-Bahn when it runs underground or the S-Bahn when it comes up for air.

We got on the train that was supposed to be headed for the famous Alexanderplatz… Tim asked what the “Platz” stood for and David responded “you know- Platz [pronounced PLAYTZ]. Like you eat dinner off your Platz!” (Just a small example of loads of laughs in the day!)

The train we were on, totally going in the direction we needed, had other plans. It actually stopped in between stations and reversed directions! We backtracked to the previous station, where we got off to figure out how else to get to our destination in time to meet our 1:00pm tour time! We were down to seventeen minutes!

Tim found a train that we could take that was leaving in ONE minute, so, once again- in Amazing Race-style- we ran down the stairs to the lower level and met the train just as the doors opened!

We successfully made it to the Alexanderplatz stop and headed straight for the TV Tower… known locally as Fernsehturn. There were strict guidelines about bringing food and water in, so David had to scarf down the sandwich he smuggled out of the hotel breakfast and gulp down one of two water bottles. He hid his second, unopened water bottle behind a bench, hoping to retrieve it when we came out of the tower.

The lines to get in to the tower were long and we couldn’t read any of the signs or understand the announcements. We had “fast track” tickets, so we managed to move past the non-moving masses.

We got in the elevator, with more people than a fire code would appreciate, and headed up. We went up so high my ears popped. The tower observation deck is 207 meters up, which calculates to about 680 feet. (The actual structure, including the needle, soars a whopping 368 meters: 1207 feet. Taller than the Eiffel Tower!) In fact, our guide told us that it is the highest building in Europe that is open to the public!

Once at the top, we were able to wander around the circular observation area and look down on the entire city. There were excellent markers in front of each window that described landmarks and where to find them. It was exciting to note the places we had already seen and take note of the places we wanted to hit whilst wandering through the city.

I was excited to see that St Mary’s Church was an easy walk from the tower- I was eager to see the inside.

The white building with the mural all around it is a building called the Haus des Lehrers, which, Daniel explained, means ‘house of teachers.’ The building, he said, was built in the early 1960s by the GDR- the German Democratic Republic, and the architecture resembles all the other buildings built in the same time. Daniel described these buildings as “LEGO block buildings all over the city.” The mural, which is actually a mosaic that encompasses close to a million tiles, is a symbol of the New Berlin- the future of the city.

The tower was a great experience. It allowed me to really get a perspective of the scope and area of the city, and where things were. I recommend doing this after you have been in the city a couple of days, as it’s exciting to spot the places you’ve seen!

After making our way back out of the tower, David walked over to where he hid his water bottle… just as a man with a backpack had scooped it up. He somehow managed to communicate with the local man enough to get the man to reach into his backpack and hand back the water bottle. Point for David!

Our first stop was at St. Mary’s Church. We had walked past this on our first day, but had not gone in. We walked in and completely missed the glassed in exhibit showcasing the “Dance with Death” , a fresco painted in 1485. Inside, I was confused because there was a three panel mosaic that had skeletons dancing with people… but Then I remembered it was a fresco. We toured the church, and admired the pipe organ and the ornate pulpit.

On the way out, we were looking for stairs to see if the famous mural was upstairs, and that’s when we realized that the mural was right there- just inside the front doors! This church, a Catholic turned Protestant Church, is the second oldest church in Berlin.

We left St. Mary’s and began walking in the direction of the Neptunbrunnen, otherwise known as the “Neptune Fountain”, which is in a piazza (not sure what the Germans call this open area?) around the corner from Alexanderplatz.

This turned out to be a rather intense area, as there was a group of Syrian demonstrators who were highly charged. They all waved flags from their country and they had draped additional flags around the necks of some of Neptune’s women. They set up a jail cell, and they brutally threw two men inside the cell- both wearing masks. I could only see one of the masks but it was a Putin mask. Running around the outskirts of the demonstration were three men dressed in white clothes and head bands smeared in blood. I wasn’t sure what their role was. Although tempted to stay and watch a little longer, the German SWAT team arrived, and I knew it was a good time to keep on moving!

Our next stop was at the oldest church in Berlin- Nikolaikirche or St. Nicholas’ church. The experience at this church perhaps started a downward trend of how the locals responded to us… the woman at the door glared at us. We went in, and another man glared at us. We saw that if we wanted to enter and take photos it would be 16.00 euros. I wasn’t up for spending that, and neither were my pals. David tried to head out a side door and got yelled at by the eagle-eyed man. We left in a bit of a hurry.

We ventured back out into the absolute biting wind, but were still eager to fill our time until dinner. (Did I mention the temps were in the twenties??)

We found our way across a very busy street and wandered around the Franziskaner-Klosterkirche Ruins. This was once a church, built in 1250, that was destroyed in the bombing of Berlin in 1945. There were giant blue pipes built inside that seemed to serve no purpose, so I’m guessing it was some sort of modern art. I felt like it really took away from the beauty of the ruins, if I’m being honest. It was, modern art aside, a good visual of the destruction that truly flattened the city… and what remained.

At this point in the day, we decided to find a pub to warm up and have a rest. We had passed what we thought seemed the quintessential German pub, so we decided to find it, since we had an hour and a half to kill before meeting the group for dinner.

We passed a few other interesting sites on our trek to the pub…

Once we got into the toasty warm pub, we were told to stand, as the waiter pointed to a tiny chair-less table. We ordered pints and stood, enjoying the warmth. After a few minutes, a tiny little booth in the corner opened up, so we carried our drinks to the table to relax for a minute. Well, this was apparently a sin of monstrous proportions, as the woman behind the bar began flapping her arms, rolling her eyes, and glaring at us. Since we had no idea what she was saying, although I certainly could have guessed, we just stayed where we were until we had finished our drinks. I may have also quietly rung the little bell that was on my table on the way out. While the service was rather alarming, the company and the pub feel made it a great stop!

We met the large group back at Alexanderplatz and headed out on a ten minute walk to dinner. On the way to dinner, we passed through the Kreuzberg neighborhood. This was a Jewish neighborhood before the war. Daniel explained to us that the church in the area was where many Jewish people were captured and taken to the concentration camps for being 1/2 Jewish or a 1/4 Jewish. They were actually worshipping in a Christian Church, but Hitler, with murder and hatred literally seething from his pores, found them and killed them.

We stopped to look at the ground outside the church and saw many “Stolperstein” (translates to stumbling) stones. These are stones that are mini monuments, with brass plates on each one that name the victim and the dates of their lives. Hitler murdered these people, and the modern Germans want visitors to honor them and never forget these innocent human beings.

Dinner was in this historic Jewish neighborhood at a place called the Grand Bar, and it was delicious! My vegetarian option was a delicious breaded goat cheese with veggies marinated in something wonderful. After dinner, we returned to the hotel to pack. Our wake-up call came at 2:30am! Ouch!

What a trip. Thanks to EF Tours for providing this amazing opportunity for the forty teachers who were on the tour!

-HC

Fear and loathing on the Berlin trail… Day 2

I woke up this morning and headed to breakfast. Wow- was I impressed! They had everything anyone could want on numerous separate stations! Cheeses, meats, fried eggs, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, and even hard boiled eggs… and fruits, yogurts, and homemade breads that rivaled a bakery. I ate with a few teachers, and as I cut my kiwi into quarters, I surveyed the group as to whether or not they eat the skin of the kiwi. Every single one of them said no. And I think they decided that I’m a bit of an odd duck.

I did waste two different cups of God only knows what on the coffee machine which didn’t have English subtitles. I finally clicked the golden button and got some mega-bitter coffee that was sure to wipe any last fatigue from my body!

After breakfast I had a two-hour training class, and then we had ten minutes to bundle up and load the tour bus. And I was ever so thankful today to have so many cold gear articles… because it was 30 degrees with a few hours of snow! (One guy from New Mexico called it blizzard conditions!)

Our first stop on the bus was at the historic East side gallery. No one visiting Berlin should miss this- even if it is below freezing and windy. This gallery is actually a series of murals painted on a remaining strip of the Berlin Wall, murals which were put up to celebrate all that was joyous and peaceful and free about the Wall coming down. The Wall has 101 different paintings- some very abstract, others more pop art style. One of the most famous is the “kissing dictators”, which says at the top “God help me stay alive” and at the bottom “among this deadly love”. This is, according to our tour guide, the longest outdoor painting in the world.

There was a fellow playing his instrument in front of one of the panels… this instrument was like the chitty-chitty bang bang of instruments. It made these funky gurgling, seven-horsepower motor sounds that were not very musical to my ears, yet I was fascinated! I bet I could make one of these?!

We got to see St Mary’s Church, which is one of the few buildings to live through the war. This church was actually built in 1270, according to our tour guide, who also said that the tower was put on it to make the church appear smaller. All the guides we’ve had stress the lack of interest the Germans have in religion. So much so that, according to today’s guide, 80% of Germans are self proclaimed atheists. “We have in Germany a religion tax,” the guide explained. “But if you sign a paper declaring yourself an atheist- you don’t have to pay it.” Hahaha

We we made another stop where I visited what must be the most famous chocolate shop in Berlin. In return for free facilities, I bought some chocolate and wowed over the chocolate creations. This Rausch shop smelled like heaven.

As we made our way to Potsdam, we passed some interesting modern monuments. The one with the curved, spaghetti-like appearance is actually a Kaiser Wilhelm memorial. According to our guide, the locals call it “aluminum worms” or “dancing in spaghetti”!

We got a chance to get out for lunch around the corner from the St. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which was the first Catholic Church to open its doors to the Potsdam community after the war.

We ate lunch in Potsdam, which our guide explained was “Berlin’s more beautiful sister.” For lunch we made our way down the Main Street in Potsdam and found a local sandwich shop. I had a delicious spinach quiche and they had a free WC (bathroom) which I’ve come to appreciate.

One of the most interesting sites we saw before arriving at the “New Palace” was the famous “Steam Engine” building, which is located along the Havel river. This place was built to look like a mosque, but inside it is home to a mega steam engine. According to our guide, there are 2000 Syrian refugees who come into Berlin each year and go there to pray. What a surprise when they find it is not a house of worship!

Our next stop was at the “New Palace”. This palace was finished in 1769 and was pretty much a 200-room summer place for king Friedrichstraße II. The rooms were lined with silks, silver, and gold, the floors were cut from the finest marble, and the art was jaw-dropping. Before I include photos of the palace, I want to describe the “not-a-palace” that was across the street. With sweeping circular stairs on the front, this was simply built to be something beautiful to look at- and was, according to our guide, “where the kitchen was.” This photo below is just a kitchen. Freddie’s diner!

The palace, across from the kitchen, is sprawling and impressive as well. When we arrived, the snow wasn’t sticking, but by the time we left, the grounds were white!

Inside the palace was historic beauty, fortunately preserved; saved from the destruction of World War II.

The porcelain chandeliers were the first of their kind, and they all had porcelain musicians built in. Much of the art was inspired by mythology and the caretakers of the palace have even kept the graffiti that was drawn on the walls during the war.

After a potty stop that cost me 70 cents, we were on the bus and headed back to east Berlin. Our next stop, and final tour stop, was the “Topography of Terror” exhibit. The outdoor exhibit is lined with a remaining section of the Berlin Wall. This place is the exact site where the Third Reich housed the SS and the gestapo. Outside, visitors can see the remnants of the cells that the SS used to hold prisoners- those who were tortured endlessly in preparation for their execution. This is why the loathing had to be in this blog’s title.

Inside the museum, there are hundreds of photos that depict the historical atrocities of Hitler’s bloody, sociopathic reign. Many of the photos are painful to look at, but serve as a true, accurate depiction of the horrors of the time.

After leaving the museum, we found our way to dinner somewhere near checkpoint Charlie’s. I enjoyed a creamy mushroom risotto and a glass of German wine called Weissherbst. My dinner mates both had schnitzel!

The ride back, without our guide, was comical and I almost felt like what the contestants on the amazing race must experience! We didn’t understand the language, and had yet to fully comprehend the Berlin subway system. With only one wrong train, we corrected ourselves, had some laughs, changed the proper number of train lines, and got back to the hotel! The Estrel hotel, I might add, is really quite something at night!

Excited to see what awaits tomorrow- my final day in Berlin!

Highlights of Berlin: Day One

I arrived in Berlin today and we literally dropped our bags at the hotel, The Estrel Berlin, and hit the ground running. We took the short subway ride to the city center- a place that was 70% bombed out and flattened in WWII. This is a city of rebuilding… there is literally construction everywhere!

Our first landmark was the Old Church known as the “Marienkirche” at Alexanderplatz. This place is not only beautiful, it is also the second oldest church in Berlin. It houses a very famous fresco done by Totentanz called “The Dance of Death” which, according to my tour guide “reminds all of us that we are all going down!” There is a skeleton who dances with everyone from the lowly teacher to the emperor! Hopefully I will get in to see this when I have some free time!?

Our next stop was at the Rosenstrasse sculptures in East Berlin. These dramatic sculptures were carved by a woman named Igeborg Hunziger, who wanted to honor the brave Jewish WOMEN who put their lives on the line to defy the Natzis and wait for their husbands outside the detention center. 1000 women stood in waiting. The craziest part? The Nazis actually DID give them their husbands back!?

Along the way we saw bear sculptures that were really cute and lively! (Not to mention that the city flag has a bear on it!) This bear is known locally as “Buddy Bear” and he was originally, according to tour guide Daniel, “created by a bunch of Berlin marketing people in the 1990s”. The idea stuck and the Bears were sold to places around town to raise money for the city. Originally solid colors, people who bought them began to individualize them… there’s even a camo-clad buddy bear hiding in the bushes in front of the Dept of Defense building! I can’t wait to spot more of these guys tomorrow!

As luck would have it, there was a street market going on and we were granted free time to wander. Interesting things I saw- particularly the record painter!

I also enjoyed a personal favorite- a crepe with Nutella!

Our next stop was at the largest Protestant Church in Berlin. It was so huge, in fact, that most believe it was built to serve as a Protestant version of the Vatican!

This church is called Vecaka Belines Baznick.

The Berlin Wall was next. I got to see portions that are on display… and I learned that they have built bricks into the street, with placards, to mark the entire length of this wall…

Check point Charlie was next, which was a famous crossing point between east and west Germany.

We oohed and aaahed over the Brandenburger Gate… and saw a comical old dude in a white sweat suit jogging with an iPod blasting tunes from his fanny pack. Can’t believe I didn’t get his photo!

This is a photo of perhaps the most famous hotel in Berlin. The Hotel Adlon. One of its claims to fame is that it is the hotel where Michael Jackson was staying when he dangled his kid off the balcony!

Before I close with what I consider to be the most moving part of the day, I had fun capturing some of the interesting things I saw!

The Holocaust memorial was really the most moving part of the day. The monuments that make up the 2711 stones are completely blank. Daniel, our guide, told us that the artist deemed this place a “place without meaning”. It is a place that you don’t even begin to take in until you walk among the stones. Only there do you feel the weight of the six million Jewish people who were killed during the Holocaust. This was really powerful…

We had a nice dinner, even got to try German wine and beer, then headed back to the hotel!

I can’t wait to see why tomorrow brings!

Remember the time we lost our 12 year old in the Swiss Alps?

Remember the time we lost our 12 year old in the Swiss Alps?

Zermatt, Switzerland: the alps most famous, carless ski town

We left our Paris hotel early, and opted to utilize Uber, once again, to get us to the rental car company at Orly. While we had all eagerly wheeled our baggage on the train from the airport to the hotel, we were not as eager to do that first thing in the morning during rush hour!

I decided months ago that I’d rather take off in a car for the French countryside from the airport and not from the city center. We reserved a minivan for our seven hour journey to Zermatt, but, as our luck would have it, they were out of mini vans. They were apologetic, and assured us that all five of us and our five suitcases (filled with our normal clothes AND ski gear) and our carry-on bags would all fit in the Ford Mendeo station wagon… the modern, low riding, wood-panel-free version of the station wagons of the road tripping 1970s. It was touch and go and a lot of cramming, but the car rental people were right- everything fit. It was a tight fit, with no view out the back and only foot room for the feet of an imp, but it all fit! I explained to the kids how lucky they were to spend the next 7 hours snuggled up together in the backseat, we took the discount they offered us for our downgrade, and off we zoomed! We were bound for the Swiss Alps!

We stopped for a fabulous lunch in a town called Poligny. We ate in a wonderful historic restaurant, called La Sergenterie, which is built into a cave! We enjoyed dinner, and Noah, not to be outdone by his old man, ordered and finished his steak tartar. I enjoyed my first of three days of cheese fondue! After what proved to be our “big meal” for the day, we continued our journey to Zermatt, Switzerland.


It is important to realize that you cannot reach Zermatt by car- visitors must park in Tasche and take a train into Zermatt. After parking in the train station parking deck, we purchased round trip tickets on the Matterhorn Glacier Express. The ride up was little more than fifteen minutes and the train dropped us in the middle of a bustling Swiss alpine town.


We rolled our luggage down the car-less streets to our hotel- the Best Western Alpen resort, where we had reserved a family style room. We checked in and we’re thrilled with the accommodations. Our room had two twins and a pullout downstairs and a loft with two twins. The best part was the balcony, which offered us a view of the peak that makes Zermatt famous: the Matterhorn!


We awoke the next morning eager to hit the slopes! We opted for a shop next to the gondola, “Intersport Rent”and were impressed with the friendliness of the staff. With gear ready, and lift tickets in our pockets (the left tickets were magnetic cards that let you through the lifts by scanning them through your jacket pockets), we loaded into the “Matterhorn Express” gondola and rode up the mountain.



It took two gondolas and a five-person chair lift to reach the top. We skied off the lift and around the building before we truly beheld the snow capped Alps around us, all lapping the snowy sides of the iconic Matterhorn. It didn’t even look real, if I’m being honest- it looked like a backdrop painted by the most talented painter in the world. I tried to snap as many photos as I could, but none of the photos captured the absolute majesty of that scene. I could have sat and stared at that backdrop forever.


We spent the day skiing the Gorgenaut side of Zermatt- happily exploring the long, powdery runs. All the trails were clearly marked by level, and most were delightfully wide and uncrowded. In fact, many times I was alone on the run- as my family raced to the bottom!


We stopped for lunch at a buffet on the mountain called the buffet and bar Riffelberg, before realizing we lost Noah!  Jim and Hannah skied back to the chairlift, and I waited with Molly in case he might find his way to the restaurant. Hannah and Jim found Noah- he had no idea we were stoping for lunch so he had gone up to the top again- by himself- and come back down- not the least bit concerned. Boys!


The buffet offered plenty of hot and cold options, but they charge for everything- including ketchup packets and NAPKINS!? Use your sleeve, kids!

We skied until the 4:30pm closing forced us from the slopes! My forty-five year old muscles were burning and pulsating, and I cursed them for not being better sports! Given my aching body, and Molly’s overall lackluster feelings about skiing (she was an excellent sport about this adventure however), she and I decided we would spend the next day exploring Zermatt. We returned our equipment to the rental store and felt excited to take on the morrow!

The evening ended with a dip in the hotel hot tub and a visit to the sauna!

Molly and I slept in the next morning to a glorious 10:00am. The other three were out early- headed for their adventure- skiing down into Italy! As soon a I got out of bed, my muscles assured me that I’d made the right decision in not skiing another day…

We wandered the streets of Zermatt, exploring shops and eateries, and talking with local shopkeepers about everything from Swiss Army knives to cuckoo clocks. I quickly realized that my name is quite popular in the Swiss Alps- and lots of products bare my moniker!

By early evening, the rest of the family returned from their day on the slopes. They were eager to share the adventure stories of their days- their faces ruddy from the wind and sun of the Alps.

We shared experiences at a neat little restaurant in Zermatt called the Restaurant du Pont, where I enjoyed my final cheese fondue.


The next morning, Saturday, we were packed and headed to the train station by 7:00am. Our flight was leaving Orly at 7pm, so we traveled back to the city.

We flew from Orly to Heathrow, and checked into the Heathrow Marriott for one final evening. We ate a late dinner of fish and chips- maintaining the mantra of “when in Rome”… and hit the proverbial hay! The final morning, we opted to Uber to Hyde Park, where we wandered in and out, then walked up the side of Green Park all the way to Buckingham Palace, where we waited with the crowds to see the Changing of the Guards!  From there, we went to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben before heading back to the hotel to check out.


We made it back to Heathrow with time to spare. Our flight took off for Atlanta at 3:55pm. I will say, the flight back to reality never offers the same excitement as the flight that sweeps you off on an adventure…

Skulls and femurs and bones, oh my! Our last day in Paris 2017

Skulls and femurs and bones, oh my! Our last day in Paris 2017

Some folks like to begin their day sipping slowly from a cup of coffee… we, however, preferred to wake up amidst the femurs and skulls of 6 million dead Parisians. 

We opted to skip my original plan, which was to ride the elevator to the top of Monparnasse- the tallest skyscraper in Paris, in order to catch up on some sleep. (The view from the top might have been redundant since we already took photos atop the Eiffel Tower)! We did not, however, intend to sleep until 10:45am! The hotel’s electricity had been out all night, and not only did we not get our wake up call, but none of our alarms went off- again! Our tickets for the Catacombs, pre purchased online, were from 11:00am-1:30pm. We didn’t have any idea if that meant we had to be there at 11:00am or if that was just a range. My optimism began to sing my favorite raegae tune… “every little thing… is gonna be alright…” a tune I tend to sing to myself in times of worry.

Once again we found ourselves flying out of the hotel toward our metro station.

When we arrived at the Catacombs, the Denfert-Rochereau stop on the metro- we saw that the line to get in was wrapped around the next block. With a sinking spirit I took our tickets to the man at the door to inquire about whether or not we should get in line or if we were too late. He looked at our tickets, unlatched the canvas barrier, and motioned for us to enter! Perhaps the curse of our comedy of errors was nearing a finish! The fates were on our side!

We entered, put on the headsets provided with the self guided audio tour, and descended the winding stairs- hundreds of them, spiraling down, down, down! We ended up what seemed like like miles below the bustling Paris streets, where we began to follow the winding passages leading to the ossuary. As we approached the halls of the dead, a sign warned, “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort!” (Stop! This here is the empire of the dead!) But how could we stop now? Isn’t morbid curiosity inherit in all humans? We had to press on and witness the bones of over 6 million dead Parisians.


The tunnels were used, from 1786-88, as a nightly depository for the dead. The cemeteries of Paris were filled beyond their rims, so the tunnels below served as a convenient final resting place for these poor souls. Years following the body build-up, the bones became a tangled mess- falling all over visitors and even occasionally blocking an entrance.

Finally, in the early 1800s, the Paris Authorities decided to organize the underground mausoleum. Workers spent months sorting and organizing the bones. They stacked them in patterns and rows- sometimes even making heart shapes with the skulls. According to the informative “audio tour”, they have to realign the bones here and there as some settle and fall out of the walls. I was thankful I wasn’t knocked out by a falling femur.


The walk back up the winding stairs was brutal, but, after what we’d seen, we were happy to be granted another day of life on earth!

After finding the “sortie”, we wandered down the street, where I happened upon a tailor who was willing to fix the strap on my backpack for two euros. He spoke no English, and it was rewarding to use my years of French classes to speak with him! His shop was a tiny place- not much bigger than a closet, and he put my bag’s strap into his sewing machine and had it secured and good as new in minutes!


At this point, we hopped back on the metro and headed for the Arc de Triomphe, at the top of the Champs Elysees! We got a family photo, then began to wander down to the Rue de la Paris, just outside the Tuillery Gardens. As we meandered the famous Champs Elysees, we watched a gypsy play her game on a poor gal. The clipboard-toting gypsy approached the unsuspecting gal whilst her partner in crime reached in the victim’s bag, grabbed a wallet, and ran! It happened as quick as a wink! I was glad I had taken the extra precaution of using a luggage lock on my little day back pack!

After wandering in and out of a few places, we stopped at a crepe stand in the Place de la Concord to enjoy crepes and a drink and watch the people pass us by. Once we were refueled, we headed past Le Grand Palais and over the bridge toward Les Invalides. Inside the gates, we passed oozie- toting guards and purchased our tickets to visit the Musee de l’Armee, home to over 500,000 artifacts dating from the the 12th century up to World War II. I was thrilled to see- close-up- the chainmail armor worn by the Anglo saxons- described in such detail in Beowulf. I also enjoyed the weapons, armor for even tiny kids, and paintings of ages and ages of historical battles.


The exhibits were amazing and ended in the famous gold-domed Invalides- which is home to the tomb of Napoleon. The tomb is massive and symbolizes the enormity of this tiny man’s place in French history. Visitors can look down to it from the main level or walk below for a closer look.

 After leaving Les Invalides, we made our way back to the Champs Elysees, and continued to the giant Paris ferris wheel. (While nowhere near the enormity and height of the London Eye, I prefer its more intimate feel) There was no line, and we enjoyed pointing out all of the easily recognized Paris landmarks.


Behind the Rue de la Paris were a few little trinket shops and a macaroon stand. I insisted that everyone try a Paris macaroon. We bought six- raspberry, caramel, mint, mint chocolate chip, and two Nutella. I could not BELIEVE that I was the only one who enjoyed them!?


We wandered through the Tuillery Gardens and back up to the Louvre, enjoying the beautiful daffodils and tulips lining the walkways. Ahhhh… Paris in April.

We caught the train to Bastille- where I thought we would be able to see some sort of rebuilt fortress!? All we saw, however, was the monument marking the famous “Storming” that the French celebrate each year! I was glad I had not made this a bigger deal in our day!

Our final supper in Paris was quite memorable. We all enjoyed wine and fromage… and watched as Jim ate an entire plate of “Steak Tartar”… which is pretty much a raw hamburger topped with a raw egg and raw onions. Wow. Gross.


We took the train back to our hotel, walking past the Gallery de Lafayette which was a block down, and tucked in for the last night in France.