Archive for December, 2005

Bonjour Paris! Aurevoir budget!

December 31, 2005

Our first hotel in Paris was only marginally more expensive than the hostels we stayed in in Amsterdam, but it still cost 3/4 of our daily budget. This morning we check out of our first hotel and into the second (we’re staying in 3 places over 4 nights in Paris) and thankfully it was already paid for by credit card ahead of time, otherwise we would be almost out of cash by now. We had to book a really expensive one because it’s New Year’s Eve and all of the hostels were already booked, but the amazing part is that I have my own room!!! Woooohooooo!!!!! Words can’t express how delighted I am to not have to fall asleep to the sound of someone else snoring or worry about waking some stranger up when I come into the room and turn on the light. It even has a COFFEE MAKER and HAIR DRYER in the room! Clearly I am in paradise. The next two days will consist of very lengthy hot showers followed by sipping tea while watching bad French television. Oh yeah, we might see some stuff too.

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Barcelona to Paris

December 31, 2005

After checking out of our hostel in Barcelona we locked our bags at the train station and headed over to Casa Battlo, which is argued to be one of Gaudi’s best works and the perfect exemplar for his style. After admiring the outside and taking a few pictures, we decided that 16 euros was a little too exorbitant for our budget and decided instead to head over to the Picasso Museum. The 3 euro entrance fee was a little more reasonable, so we spent the next couple of hours staring at the squiggles and smudges that this guy passed of as art. Maybe the better stuff is in the Picasso museum in Paris. Maybe there isn’t actually better stuff.

So after grabbing sandwiches and making a few quick phone calls outside the train station, we dashed inside to grab out bags and find out which track the 6:38pm train to Cebere was leaving from. Only it wasn’t on the board. After asking some very nice Spanish security guards we found out that the 6:38pm train to Cebere…get this…didn’t exist! This was the train that was supposed to connect us to our night train to Paris. By this point I’m flipping out and talking a mile a minute to people who only understand loud, slow english. Eventually I was able to figure out that there were explaining a different way to get to Paris that night.

We would take the next train to Cebere (at the French/Spanish border) transfer to a train that would get us to Marseilles 6 hours later then transfer to another train that would take us to Paris in 3 hours. Now, you’re gonna need a map for this one, but the distance to Cebere to Marseilles (Cebere is not on that map, but it’s right where France and Spain meet on the southern coast) is about 2 or 3 times the distance from Marseilles to Paris and they were proposing to get us there in half the amount of time. It actually did work out this way, but I slept through most of it, so it will remain one of life’s greatest mysteries to me.

The station at Cebere was a little sketchy, our train disappeared from the departures board about 20 minutes before it was scheduled to leace, so 20 or so passengers who were filling the station, all clearly waiting for the same train took a gamble and went to the only train waiting at the station.

The train was really dark inside. I mean really dark. People were pulling out lighters and cell phones to try to find the right seats. Not that it mattered though, we heard other people complain that their seat and even their car simply didn’t exist. Add in the complete lack of heat and the guy smoking a joint in pitch black at the back of the train and the word of the day is SKETCHY!

We pulled into Marseilles on time but had to sort of guess where we were because there were no signs and no announcements. Thankfully, we discovered once we walked into the station that we were in the right place. And “into” is also a relative word. Though the station had walls and a roof where was no heat by any stretch of the immagination and when the board announced that our train was “retard imdeterminite” I had visions of people peeling my frozen, lifeless body off the benches. Frankly, I don’t know how palm trees grow in that place, it was bloody cold.

The wait wasn’t actually that bad, the train was only 30 minutes late (plus the hour we had to wait for the connection), so we arrived at our hotel in Paris just as they were finishing cleaning. We all took nice, hot showers and slept until the late afternoon.

It snowed in Paris. A lot. Then it rained. Slava had the brilliant idea that we should walk to 2km from our hotel to Notre Dame. Most of the time I’ll all for walking, but when it’s raining, the temperature hovering around freezing and the streets filled with slush, it pretty much becomes a recipe for one miserable little girl. The only thing that cheered me up was stopping for a french pastry and a baguette before taking the metro back to the hotel.

Notre Dame was beautiful. I was surprised at the amount of people there, but I think they all just wanted to get in out of the rain. I wish we had seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome last, because after seeing it no other churches can compare, beautiful as they may be.

Oh yeah, and Paris is ridiculously expensive. We have pictures of what a hotdog that costs 5 euros looks like.

Oh my Gaudi

December 28, 2005

We arrived in Barcelona yesterday morning after a long night of not sleeping on the night train (slava excluded). We had to stop and switch trains at a town on the France-Spain border where they were checking passports before entering the station. The guard glanced at the cover of my passport, muttered “Canadian” and waved me through. Apparently young Canadian girls are no threat to Spanish homeland security.

We wandered aimlessly around the city looking for a laundromat for our clothes that were badly in need of washing, and finding none decided to use the very sketchy looking washer and dryer on the roof of our hostel. That’s right, the roof. The lady said that the washer was “self-soaping” which after producing a grand total of about 5 bubbles, I decided could do well with a load of my shower gel to ensure that they actually were clean. Everything smells nice and ocean-fresh now.

For dinner we went to a restaurant that was supposed to give us a discount because we were staying at the hostel of the same name, and of course they seemed to know nothing about this discount at the restaurant. Again, sketchy. The food, however was fantastic. We had the special which included paella, sangria and a coffee all in for the grand total of €12 (most expensive meal we’ve had yet) and I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

This morning we got up in time to catch the tail end of breakfast and then get a move on to see some of the sights. Most of the greatest sights to see here in Barcelona are all the works of the architect/artist/obvious hallucenogenic drug user Gaudi. The first thing we went to was Park Guell and then Sagrada Familia . Both incredibly astounding architecture and so different than any buildings I’ve seen outside of illustrations in a Dr. Seuss book.

Yesterday Slava was posting some song lyrics to his blog and when he looked them up on the artist’s website he noticed that the band happened to be setting up a studio in Barcelona. So he e-mailed one of the guys and asked if he would like to go out for coffee when we were in town. Interestingly enough, he said yes. So at 4pm we went to some coffee shop close to his studio and I had the job of trying to make casual conversation to try to hide the fact that Slava clearly was so enamoured with him he was about to pee his pants.

So we saw the work in progress that is soon to be the studio, while I was instructed to take multiple polariod shots of the two of them, while Slava was trying hard not to give the “thumbs-up” with an enormously wide smile in the pictures. Frankly, it was all a little boring and I spent most of the time wondering why anyone would feel they needed to fashion ther mustache into a tiny strip of hairs just above their lip. I guess whatever floats your boat.

So now I’m about to take a nap to pass the time before we can go out and get some dinner (restaurants don’t open until 8) and I can nearly pass out from the heaven that is paella.

Too much reading

December 26, 2005

Reading over my last post I realized that I probably spent too much time yesterday reading my novel.

Joyeux Noel!

December 25, 2005

Last night we had a wonderful dinner with a bunch of other people who were staying at the hostel. There was a huge amount of food and tons of merriment to go around. At midnight the champagne was broken out and many cheers of “joyeux noel!” were heard. After which, the lights went down, the music came up and the dancing began. Having not had enough wine myself to start dancing on the tables (yeah, Slava was up there) I occupied myself by running away from an alarmingly persistent Russian admirer.

Apparently after I got tired and went to bed the Russian had a little more luck with one of the Swiss girls who was sharing a dorm with me, as 2 out of 3 of them didn’t return to the room last night. What happened with the second one, from what I heard, was a little too sordid and disgusting to recount on this blog, but everyone in the hostel knew about it and there were some crass jokes at the breakfast table the next morning about Russia and Brazil invading Switzerland.

The joking aside, breakfast was very nice affair with pancakes and strawberries made by Elliott and another of the guys staying at the hostel. I spent the rest of the day nursing a hangover (which in relation to the amount of wine I actually drank seemed very unfair) and generally wallowing in self pity from the lack of anything to do, or anywhere to go and missing my family 😦 A little later on a few people decided to go to church, even though none of them were actually Catholic, or even Christian for that matter, which was a nice escape from the monotony of the hostel all day. Hopefully tonight will be an early night and tomorrow will be filled with many different sights and shopping in Nice!

I wasn’t really expecting much from our visit to N…

December 24, 2005

I wasn’t really expecting much from our visit to Nice, maybe a couple nice pictures, annoying French people who don’t want to speak english and nearly kill us with their bad driving skills. While I was right about the nice pictures and bad drivers Nice is so much more than I was expecting. It’s absolutely beautiful here. The whole town is set on the side of a mountain overlooking the ocean, there’s palm trees everywhere and everything is built concrete and the terracotta tile roofs so that it looks like something straight out of a british colony in the Caribbean.

The directions on how to get to our hostel from the train station were a bit sketchy and actually included us calling from pay phone and having someone pick us up from a square. I had concerns about us quickly climbing into the back of a white unmarked van that slowed down at the traffic light only to never be heard from again. Fortunately the white van (with windows in the back, much less scary) showed up and a cute little girl from Colorado who knew my name got out and helped us into the shuttle up to the villa. The place we’re staying is so beautiful, it used to be a monastery and was converted into a youth hostel/student residence by some ingenious mind. Take a look at it here.

Today we walked around Nice for quite a while, taking in a lot of the sights. There’s a really cool park at the top of a tower that used to be a fort or a castle or something that has all these different little paths to climb higher and higher into the sky to have some really amazing views of Nice. There’s even a bunch of ruins left from where the original walls of the fort used to stand. Very cool. Because of the fact that it’s Christmas eve a lot of stuff in Nice was closed today, which was alright with me, I’d rather just head back to the villa, take it easy and enjoy the views from the top of this hill we’re on.

There’s a few kids here that work here or stay at the villa while they’re going to school in Nice who for whatever reasons aren’t going back home for Christmas. So all of these lonely souls have decided to get together and have a Christmas potluck dinner to feel a little less lonely together. I’m glad that my first Christmas away from home isn’t just going to be me Elliott and Slava staring at each other and drinking copious amounts of wine simply out of boredom.

I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas, and to everyone in my family I’ll miss you tons tonight and tomorrow morning!

Siena

December 24, 2005

Took the train into Siena from Florence to see what a smaller Italian town is like. When we got out of the train station we hopped onto the bus that our guide books told us would take us into the centre of town. It actually was the right bus that we got on, but unfortunately was going in the opposite direction than we needed. We got a crazy tour of the Siena countryside, all the while being tossed around the back of a bus that was going at ridiculously high speeds for the size of the roads it was driving on. Eventually we got let out at a huge grocery outlet store and tried to ask the driver (who obviously only spoke Italian) how the hell we get into town. Thankfully we met a man from England who had recently moved to Siena and could direct us to where we wanted to go.

So we wandered around Siena for a day. We went into the cathedral in town, which charged us 3 euros to get in, thoroughly searched my bag and then requested donations for everything else inside. There was the general donation box, which I guess you threw money into if you weren’t already offended by the entrance fee, donation boxes for the votive candles, prayer cards, and various audio guides for the history of the church. Not to mention the fact that the exterior of the church was under construction and the floor inside was covered in linoleum duct taped down, I guess to stop wear and tear. It was a little annoying.

So besides the church, Siena is an absolutely beautiful town. I wished we had more than a day to explore it because there was so much to see, and so many little alleys to explore that had views like something out of a movie. Definitely a place that I’m going to have to go back to.

Florence = Shopping

December 21, 2005

Yesterday after arriving in Florence in the morning, taking in a few of the sights and outdoor markets the three of us pretty much just went to sleep. We woke up around dinner time and ate in this charming little cafe that was playing Christmas music that made me a little sad thinking about how I’m going to miss Christmas with my family.

This morning we woke up bright and early to hit a couple of museums including Academia (where the David is) and the Ufizzi. The David really is something you have to see in person, it’s amazing that someone could carve something so intricate and lifelike out of a block of marble, he really is incredibly beautiful. I’m so astonished with what type of things people can do and find out about paintings with restoration. A lot of the paintings that had been restored had shown multiple layers of painting that obscured earlier work. Even the sketching underneath showed different ways that the artist had strayed from the original penciling.

Academia had a lot of explanations with the paintings, which I found to be very informative, but also I had a hard time lifting my head up to look at the actual paintings instead of reading all about them. In the Uffizi gallery, there were less explanations, but it allowed me to actually look at and study the paintings.

One painting I was looking at really stood out from the previous ones I had seen, and I stared at the face of the woman, so impressed with the detail and how lifelike it seemed, I looked down at the name of the artist and realized it was a Botticelli. It’s so amazing the difference between the most accomplished and celebrated painters and the lesser known artists. After this I started playing a “guess the masters” game by looking at the painting and deciding if it was a Raffael, Michaelangelo, Botticelli etc. or just some unknown. I found it surprising, how someone like myself who has taken no art classes and barely has an appreciation for it could really tell the difference. I guess there’s a reason they’re called “masters”.

In the afternoon, we hit some of the open air markets that hock tons of leather stuff/mitts/scarves/jackets/belts and picked up a bunch of stuff that I really have no idea how I’m going to fit in my bag and take along with me.

Tomorrow we’re taking a day trip to either Siena or Assisi, as I’ve heard from most people that Pisa was a very disappointing experience (ok, mostly just Chris) and that many other towns just a short train ride away were much more enjoyable.

The Eternal City

December 19, 2005

Up early again this morning to visit the vatican museum that we didn’t get to yesterday. We thought we were there so bright and early, there was no line, the museum was about to open in 10 minutes, everything was wonderful. Until Slava looked to the left and said “uh, is that the line?” Oh was it ever. The line went down the street and around the block. So once we made our way to the real back of the line, we waited about an hour to get in. The museum was wonderful. I was a little disppointed with the Sistine Chapel. After seeing tons of rooms in the museum that were all covered in frescos I didn’t really understand why this one was so revered. Don’t get me wrong, it was gorgeous, but there were so many other places there that were just as beautiful. My favourite part was how Michaelanglo clearly painted a very large skull in the fresco behind the altar. Squint your eveys and look at the picture. http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/x-Schede/CSNs/CSNs_G_Giud.html (Sorry, I can’t find the right keys on this keyboard to put it in as html)

So after this we saw the Spanish steps, Trevi Fountain, the Forum, Pallantine and of course The Coliseum. We took a tour of the Coliseum, which was very informative, it made me wish that we took tours of everything else as well to understand the history behind it (maybe I would have liked the Sistine Chapel better) but that would get a little costly after a while. So I’m just about wiped at the moment and we have to take a train to Florence early tomorrow morning. Ciao!

The Vatican

December 19, 2005

Yesterday morning we all got up bright and early to visit the Vatican and see Il Papa. We got to Saint Peter’s Square early enough to beat a lot of the crowds into the Basilica. I nearly fell on the floor and died when we stepped inside, I have never seen anything so beautiful in my life. In every space you looked there was not a corner that wasn’t covered in a statue, tile mosiac, painting, or carving of some sort. It was absolutely incredible. The feet of the statue of Saint Peter were worn down from millions of pilgrims that have run their hands over them over the years. There was some sort of service going on inside, but the basilica is so big that even with hundreds of tourists inside the service was undisturbed.

We attempted to visit the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, but after walking for a good 20 minutes to get there we found out that it was closed on Sundays. Instead we went back to St. Peter’s. We went down into the crypts to see the tombs of all the popes that have died over the years and seeing all the asian tourists snapping smiling pictures in front of John Paul’s grave, I started to be a little concerned that it was slightly sacreligious.

Next, we climbed all the way up to the top of the dome (through a few incredibly claustrophobic staircases) for some spectacular views of the city. By the time we climbed down it was about noon so we went back out to the square to wait for the pope. Il Papa came and stuck his head out a tiny window and bestowed blessings on everyone in the square in 7 different languages. It was a very unique experience, I’m very glad that I got to see the pope while I was in Italy.

In the afternoon we visited the Castel Saint Angelo and the Pantheon,and then walked back to the hostel and promptly took a nap. Last night was a bit of an early night, after eating some pasta and drinking a bit of wine a dragged myself back to my room to get a good night’s sleep and get ready for another day of sightseeing.