A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Friday, August 28, 2009

J’adore Paris

Paris really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are small unexpected wonders everywhere amidst the myriad of parks, cafes, and museums where one alone would make anyplace wondrous and special. A city meant to be walked with large sidewalks lining wide boulevards.

We bought a couple books of metro tickets and quickly became pros at the underground system. Although it was highly enlightening when we found out you can use your ticket twice. Duh. And once when we were running late Ron ran out of tickets at the most inopportune time. I waited impatiently on the opposite side of the turnstile while he waited in an endlessly long line. I saw a grandpa struggle with his balance and arthritis to awkwardly jump over the turnstile for a free metro ride. A few seconds later over bounded Ron. I guess if grandpa can do it…

Unlike most things that don’t live up to the hype, the Louvre actually is all it’s cracked up to be, an oversized and tastefully designed complex housing millions of works of art. I’ve heard that if you spent a minute with each piece it would take you 150 years to see it all. Sometimes the sweeping staircases, perfectly sunlit courtyards, and grand ballrooms overshadow the art it is supposed to showcase. But I wondered (in irritation) how on earth they can get away with only four bathroom stalls for the 4,000 daily visitors and they don’t have a single drinking fountain and make you fork over twenty dollars for water. The nerve. We especially enjoyed the Medieval Louvre remains and the historical displays of the museum itself. During World War II the Louvre was emptied of all its treasures and stored in secret lest the Mona Lisa be sacked and carried off to Germany.

We visited the Musee d’Orsay which is a transformed train station housing lot of famous impressionist works and Rodin sculptures. Rodin’s mistress, Camille Claudel, also a sculptor and apprentice of his, went crazy when he wouldn’t leave his wife, and she spent the last thirty years of her life in the insane asylum. This is a haunting sculpture of hers, in between the incalculable distance of the girls outstretching hand, you can feel her longing pain….

We visited the nearby Pere Lachaise Cemetery one dreary afternoon to see some of the famous graves of Chopin, Gertrude Stein, Edith Piaf, Colette, Oscar Wilde, and of course Jim Morrisson. The latter, definitely underwhelming, since some grave robber stole the famous bust of “James” back in the eighties. Now its just like any old grave in any old cemetery in the world, except for the incoherent letters and drug offerings left strewn on the exposed dirt grave. And to add a dramatic flair to the afternoon, the sky darkened and it started thundering and raining. We splashed through muddy puddles between the headstones with the lightning striking sideways in jagged spikes across the bitterly gray sky. Running breathless through the cemetery we found shelter under the awning of a nearby café and enjoyed a nearly perfect espresso, safe and snug from the cold rain.

One night we met up with a Canadian couple, Jay and Corina, who are on a strikingly similar world tour as us. We met online several months ago and read each others blogs, share travel notes, and the inevitable struggles of life on the road. It was just pure chance that we crossed paths in Paris and we jumped at the chance to meet each other in person. We ended up at a pricy restaurant in the ultra-touristy St. Michel area, more by accident than choice, as their host struggled to find a restaurant to suit the burgeoning group of all the friends-of-friends that showed up. We numbered an even dozen when we sat down, which may or may not have added to the wait for our food and the inexcusable serving of some dishes over two hours later. Ron and I shared the French staples of an onion soup, bowl of moules mariniere, and a half bottle of red wine, but for the over $60 bill we still felt hungry and a bit ripped off, lamenting on the lackluster taste. Once again feeling thankful we live in San Francisco where good food is a right not a luxury.

Jay & Corina - hope you are doing well in Spain!

We went back to the Eiffel Tower to see it at night. Ron got to use his new tripod (bought off the street for twenty bucks) to get some stellar nightshots. Unfortunately we missed going to the top. The tower itself is open until midnight but they stop selling tickets at 9:30pm, and our dinner ran a bit too late to make it on our second to last night in Paris. We also missed Saint Chapelle which is supposed to have amazing stained glass windows. I guess that means we will just have to return.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Our Friends from Brittany

We met our friends from Rennes under the Eiffel Tower at high noon and began our marathon adventure around Paris. Eva had lived only a few hours from Paris her whole life and had never been. Never been! I suppose it’s like if I’ve never been to San Jose, but San Jose is no Paris. Can you imagine?! So we were sightseeing together. Her cousin Anthony, like a young Russell Crowe and fellow musician of a band called Pop n Roll, bonded with Ron over music immediately. We met them when they were traveling through the US and hosted them through couchsurfing.com for a couple nights in our apartment in San Francisco.

First stop was lunch at a nearby brasserie where we had faux fillet and pomme frites or grilled steak and fries. Yum…one of the better meals we would have in Paris, and so simple. There was an older woman at a nearby table, drunk off white wine at 1 in the afternoon, a self proclaimed abstract artist and dancer she was a real character and we chatted with her for at least half an hour.
Next we went to the Montmartre area and climbed the hundreds of stairs to Sacre Couer, french for sacred heart. The climb under the savage sun wasn’t very fun but the view of the city afterward was well worth the effort.

On to Notre Dame, we followed the snaking line into the building, one of the greatest gothic cathedrals in the world. Dark and somberly we circumnavigated the interior in silence. A man sneezed and I jokingly shushed him and burst in to giggles. It is a million more times fun to sightsee with friends. In this photo you can see the first flying buttresses on a cathedral, like spider arms supporting the body of the building.

Taking a brief break by the river Seine. We laughed and talked and shared a bottle of sweet wine called Melmor, they brought from Brittany.

We walked down the river toward the Louvre and the famous pyramid entrance designed by I.M. Pei.

Through the Tuileries garden, down the long Champs-Elysees, towards the Arc de Triomphe.

We were dead tired by then, my legs about to fall off so we took the metro to Saint Denis-du Fauborg, back to our neighborhood for dinner. We sipped an apertif of Ricard. Ron had some delicious turkey dish with creamy gravy and I had a duck salad that had just a few too many gizzard parts in it. But I was too hungry to be overly picky.

This is where it starts to get blurry. First was the idea to get a bottle of vodka and a 6-pack of redbull at the local super-marche. Very sensible, because it can be 10 euro a drink at some bars. We would save a fortune! We went back to our apartment, mixed drinks, and Ron dj’ed music on his Ipod for hours as background to our boisterous conversation.

And then at nearly 3am Ron and Anthony wanted “just one more”…

So we headed to a nearby bar. Eva and I stuck to the water but it displeased the greedy waiter not wanting us to sit and order nothing, in his dead empty bar in the dead of the night. The bill came to over 25 euro for two drinks, and we were all shocked. But I did have an opportunity to use some French I just learned. “Va tu faire foutre!”, I said clearly and confidently to the face of the waiter, he frowned and slunk back inside. Serves you right, jerk.

The next day came too soon and arrived with a head spinning hangover. Ugh. Worth it? Absolutely, we had a grand time. We were sad to see our friends go, but only until next time. Eva is thinking about moving to Quebec early next year so perhaps our next adventure will be there!

Eva et Anthony, nous vous aimons!


Monday, August 17, 2009

Vacation from the vacation

It’s all a little overwhelming. I thought the worst part was planning things before we left but there were a zillion details undone. On purpose actually. So that we could go with the flow and see where our instincts and hearts took us. But there’s still a lot of pressure, its not exactly like lackadaisical wandering. Our whole lives have become almost routine amidst the chaos. Every couple days we are in a new city, we need to figure out how we get there, where to find a room, what is the new currency, how to speak a new language.

And then this blog and the flickr photos adds another layer of “things to do”, although I am enjoying writing and sharing immensely, it is always way behind our trip and that nags at me in odd hours of the morning when I should be sound asleep.

Not to mention the daily chores of securing water and food, washing clothes in the sink, organizing and packing the packs. And then don’t forget why you are there in the first place - there are things to see, places to visit, and hours of jostling with other tourists for the photo of that famous whatchamacallit. Ron has made a sport of taking pictures of tourists taking pictures. Of course, there is down-time after all that, but I find I just want to read or sleep in the lulls of the day.

Travel days are the worst, the most stressful and most tiring as you lug your stuff from one city to the next on trains, planes, and automobiles - always hoping you are in one piece at the end of the day with a roof over your head.

The fast pace of our travels is really draining, but we knew we were in for a whirlwind tour in Europe. The high costs of everything require us to go quickly and see what we can in a span of a couple months so we can get to the promised land of an undeveloped country with cheap costs. But we need to slow down a bit and take a vacation from the trip. A short breath to reflect on everything, reorganize, and rejuvenate. What better place to spend two weeks than Paris?! It was good ole craiglist to the rescue where we found a perfect apartment to rent.

Rented out by a super cool guy and film student named Martin, it was actually his apartment but he was taking some time off this summer to travel to Spain. Our dates matched up and it was an instant deal. In the 10th arrondissement, or black ghetto of Paris, where Francophile ex-pats from Nigeria, Senegal, and Cameroon talk excitedly (and loudly) on the street corners. There must be more hair salons in this district per capita than cafes, and a fight broke out at one outside our window the first day we arrived. It got pretty heated between two women, must have been a hair weave gone wrong or a man who done them wrong. Not much else could get women to brawl like that.

There was also an art gallery across the street that had a show Paris Tragique with artists armed with cans of spray paint creating graffiti art for the young Parisian crowd sipping wine out of plastic cups.

Behind a faded green door, it was a small 1 bedroom flat up three flights of creaky worn wooden stairs, and was our little cozy and humble home in Paris.

Complete with a fantastic dvd collection (lovingly stocked by a real film buff) we watched classic movies everyday for two weeks like Down by Law, Duel, Full Metal Jacket, Cabaret, Rumble Fish, and Lost Silver.

The only complaint, and believe me it was almost a deal breaker, was the fact the internet went out the day before we showed up. I was so looking forward to waking up with coffee and getting online to research things, skyping our families, and finally catching up with this blog. Martin was nice enough to drop the price a little and it did start working again, but only a day or two before we left. Oh well. C’est la vie. I’ll catch up someday…

The neighborhood we stayed in was colorful, not in a scary way, but definitely not a tourist district. A street over was Brady passage, a miniature India, with the mesmerizing smell of cooking curry, and great 5 euro daily specials (or plats du jour). There was also a KFC on a nearby corner, and I hate to admit it but we bought 2 buckets of chicken while we were there, and nearly a third one evening when we came back exhausted from sight seeing. Ok there’s really no excuse, it’s finger lickin good and I can’t resist it, so why try?

Another absolute fixture of our daily life in Paris was the local Lidl, a discount grocery store where you can get champagne for cheaper than water (only 1.09 euro!), so cheap Ron and I felt compelled to drink a bottle (almost everyday) with our home cooked meals. We stocked up on groceries and cooked eggs for breakfast, made salami and brie sandwiches for lunch, and spicy sausage, cheesy potatoes, and green beans for dinner.

They charge you a quarter per grocery bag, a great ploy to encourage recycling, and then expect you to sack your own groceries. And quickly! The line won’t wait for you so hurry up you dumb American.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Our Roman Holiday Remix

We got to Rome in the afternoon and went on a search for a budget hotel. The area around the Termini train station has hundreds of hotels to choose from and can be dodgy in places after dark.

We wandered in to one of the dodgier places, y’know the kind you stand in front of and ask yourself, should I knock or just run away? A frumpy Italian lady appeared and didn’t have room for a whole week but was nice enough to direct us to another place. Their “car” picked us up with our packs, sometimes a scary venture if we decide against staying there, and we drove the short distance away.

The place, Cristina’s Residence, was set out of the bustle behind a locked gate and near a residential building. It was perfect for us, if a bit expensive, but Italy is not cheap. We had a little fridge, clean bathroom, and wifi - what more to ask for! They brought breakfast every morning to our room but the stack of biscuits and croissant out of plastic wrap was no Ca Valeri. After day 3, Ron pouted about having to eat it, but free food is free so we choked it down day after day.

The food, in general, was nothing to write home about as we tried to mainly eat on the cheap and from the grocery store - lots of half roasted chickens (only $4) and premade pastas. There was a great Indian food place near the train station aptly named Indian Fast Food. We had some great pizza near Piazza Navona. And a delicious early evening mojito out at Campo di Fiori one night with cabaret style street dancers tapping out the entertainment.

Rome, like all of Italy, in August is jam packed with tourists and too hot to want to leave the haven of your hotel room during the day. Unfortunately most sites of interest have regular business hours so it forces you, begrudgingly, out on to the streets. Once outside you are dripping sweat from the heat and the humidity almost instantaneously and then irritable for most of the day thereafter.

One of my favorite sites has to be Trevi fountain, it is just so beautiful and unexpected as you round the corner towards the piazza and see the massive fountain towering over you. The white marble and intricate statues and spraying water transfixes and uplifts your spirit - you crave to just jump right in and swim around awhile. Nevermind the mob scene of tourists crawling all over it. We threw a coin in the fountain, so legend has it we are guaranteed to return to Rome (though I promise you, never ever ever in the summer).

The Pantheon is another must see with the famous columned façade and huge oculus in the center of the ceiling, letting in the natural sunlight - and rain and birds and anything else that wanders through it. Also the final resting place of our good buddy Raphael.

We visited San Pietro in Vicolo mainly to see Michaelangelo’s tomb for Pope Julius II. It was planned to have over 60 full size sculpted figures but the final result was much less ambitious. Like most churches, admission is free, so it was worth a quick peek. I wore a tank top that day so to get in past the respectful clothing police, I fastened a shawl from two mismatching bandanas. Ron said I looked like some kind of a homeless superhero and refused to stand next to me.

We went to the Colleseum again during the day. We didn’t go in, as I had seen it a few years back when I went on an Italy tour (Milan - Florence - Rome) with my friend Tina. It’s not all that impressive inside, just a bunch of holes in the ground where the prisoners and tigers were kept. But we sure had fun fake fighting and laughing at guys dressed up like gladiators smoking cigarettes on their break. Yo T-dog, wassup girl!

The same day, we hoped to tour around the Roman Forum but it was way too hot, the sun too brutal to sift unshaded through broken pillars and piles of rubble. Maybe if I was more of a history buff…but only maybe.

As the Romans are the inventors of the aqueduct, there is no shortage of fountains and free flowing fresh water from spouts and spigots all over the city. It was especially important that we could fill up our water bottles as the stupid filter we bought (the First Need filter that Jonathan recommended!) had already cracked. We had barely used it since so many countries had clean water but we will soon be heading to Africa and now have a serious headache to try and get a replacement filter on the road.

We had a real kick watching Roman Holiday one afternoon, and seeing Audrey Hepburn at all the sights we had visited. All except the famous scene of Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth, that had already closed when we went at the unsocial hour of 6pm, the sun still hours from setting, we had to shoot photos through the bars. I’m not sure what I’d even say if I could put my hand in the ancient lie detector...what would you ask if you knew I had to tell the truth?


Vatican City

Vatican City isn’t really a city at all. Secreted away behind impossibly high walls within Rome it is actually the smallest country in the world with its own laws dictated by the Roman Catholic Church and enforced by the Swiss Guard in funny joker-esque attire reportedly designed by Michelangelo himself.

It takes an entire day to visit the square, basilica, and museum and you are most definitely battered and tired like Jesus in the Pieta afterwards. The actual statue sits near the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica behind thick bulletproof glass since some madman came in 1972 and started hacking away at Madonna with a hammer exclaiming “I am Jesus Christ!” I don’t think so buddy, you are a crazy zealot and an art vandalizer that ruined it for the rest of us. Just like the a-hole with a bomb in his nike sneakers, we are all forced to take off our shoes at the airport now. Thanks a lot.
St. Peter’s Basilica is so massive you can’t really describe it or photograph it properly. From one side to the other is the length of over two football fields.

The sun shining in from the circular windows above feels godly - like the light from angels - and casts beams of light on the marbled floor below.

The spiraling canopy over the altar was designed by Bernini and constructed from bronze pilfered from the Pantheon, as dictated by Pope Urban VIII, a member of the wealthy Barberini family. Which led to a famous Italian quote, “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini" which translates to: What the barbarians didn't do, the Barberini did.

The Vatican Museum houses a huge collection of art, and like all other museums of its kind I can’t help but feel a little guilty looking at works of art pillaged from other civilizations. Even more ironic is stuff unapologetically stolen in the name of God. Isn’t that poor mummy turning over in his sarcophagus fuming over the fact that he is not spending eternity in his rightful tomb in Egypt?

Many extraordinary artists are exhibited, including Raphael - a real “player” and womanizer 15th century style, who was commissioned to paint several murals in the papal apartments.

But all of this is merely prelude, as the masses of people pushing down the hallways attest, since the entire museum is designed to lead you swiftly towards the finale that is the Sistine Chapel.

We had read Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling so we had the inside scoop on the story of it in the making. Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the massive painting assignment, as he was a self-proclaimed sculptor, who only wanted to work on Pope Julius II’s tomb instead. The book debunked some common misconstrued facts, like he did not paint it lying on his back, nor did he complete it as a solo endeavor, he had many assistants, however unlucky they felt working with the depressed often volatile artist. Who can’t relate to taking on a project that you don’t want and can’t back out of, then working painstakingly to complete it, almost killing yourself in the process. I’d be cranky too.
He had to teach himself how to fresco during the project, which is painting on wet plaster hoping you don’t make a mistake before it dries.. So what that it took him four years to complete, it is over 5000 square feet in surface area! He also became a master at foreshortening, the art of drawing figures overhead at a perspective that looks like they are leaping towards you. It really is amazing in person, the perspectives are often flawless.

I had told Ron that you couldn’t take photos but for some inexplicable reason I saw a sign on the door when you entered the chapel that I took for “no flash” photography. We pushed our way through the crowds and luckily scored two seats along the wall. I plugged in my ipod and started listening to Rick Steves audio guide (never mind I think he is such a tool). He starts out talking about the Creation of Adam so I take my camera out and zoom in so I can see the detail and snap a few photos. Suddenly there is an angry man in my face - his mouth moving but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I pop out an earbud and he is yelling at me at the top of his lungs in Italian then English telling me I can be escorted out of the building. Now I notice there are several hundred onlookers not looking at the ceiling but staring at me in disbelief. Oops. Well here it is in all it’s glory, my illegal photograph of the Sistine Chapel!


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Bridge of (Disappointing) Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs in Venice, rumored to be where prisoners saw their last flicker of sunlight before being dragged down into the dungeons, is now surrounded by one giant advertisement. We passed it several times scratching our heads at the tourists crowded around, not realizing it was an actual monument. What the heck has happened to the sacred? Like those very criminals, marketers have sunk into a pit of depravity never to be seen again.

Everyone, everything, and everywhere is slowing selling out. I remember getting angry at tv as the little network logo crept on the screen (I think it started with mtv), then the scrolling cnn banners were added to the news, now ridiculous animating advertisements assault you while you watch your primetime tv. In twenty years the whole screen will be one giant ad overlayed on top of the program and I‘ll say wistful things like ‘I remember the day when tv just had tv on it.”

There are hollywood stars plastered all over foreign advertising, shameless product placements in movies, soft drink companies buying up our schools, and we all shrug and go on eating our coco puffs. Well now it’s our beloved and iconic world heritage treasures?! Do we revolt or get on board and make some money? There is so much wasted space out there and I think I have a few lucrative ideas to revolutionize advertising. Let’s have absolut vodka sponsor some strategically placed billboards on the golden gate bridge, or light a nike swoosh on the eiffel tower. Hell, let’s give the statue of liberty a bottle of coca cola and watch the sales roll in….


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Islands of Murano and Burano

One day we went on a vaporetto (water bus) adventure to the island of Murano where all the famous glassblowers live. There were amazing chandeliers for tens of thousands of dollars to gawk at and you can wander down alleys and sneak a peak at some of the glassblowers at work.

We went to the Glass Museum which was a little underwhelming for me only because I’ve seen some amazing modern work at the Glass Museum in Seattle. But in the lobby we had the best espresso imaginable out of a machine. The Italians sure know how to do their vending machines. We even saw one for cooked pasta but didn’t venture to try it.

We also visited another island nearby called Burano, after remembering a No Reservations episode where Anthony Bourdain tried the famous goh fish risotto at Da Ramano. We wandered quaint bridges over little canals lined with cheery multicolored houses and relaxed under a café umbrella, playing cards and sipping limoncella (a sweet lemony liquer) until early evening.

We rounded a corner off the square and were face to face with the restaurant. Only it was all shuttered up and most certainly not open for business. How heart breaking! As we got closer we saw displayed prominently on the door that they have a Michelin star. Well on the bright side, it would have severely damaged our budget. Here's an interior shot of where we would have been dining given good luck and unlimited funds.

We meandered around deflated and didn’t want to lower ourselves to second best risotto so we headed back to Venice and ate some more of that gorgonzola pizza. Don’t mess with what works.

Probably the most memorable destination in Venice was no further away then our hotel suite at Ca Valeri. We went all out, well it’s Venice! It was decked out with none-other-than murano glass chandeliers, fabric covered walls, and the obligatory feature of anything described as “big pimpin”…..a giant jacuzzi tub. How splendid was a hot bath (every morning and night) for 3 days, away from the crowds and insanity of the streets. Bliss. And the breakfast served to our room every morning, cappuccinos and croissant, wasn’t too shabby either. We definitely lived the high life….

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