Sunday, March 28, 2010

Paris, France

Paris is a city that has so frequently been featured in movies, print, and as a character in books, that everyone feels that they know something of it, even if they have never been within five thousand miles. I had my first opportunity to see Paris last weekend, and it lived up to much of the hype. It is a huge city full of five story tan apartment buildings in the French Federal Style (iron railings on the windows, block tan stone, roofs of slanting blue slate, many decorative elements). It sprawls in every direction and is very big. It is a city of mixed heritage, everything from the die hard Frenchman to the recent immigrant from Ghana. The variety of people makes for good food.
Speaking of food, we did have some great meals while in the city. One restaurant featured tarts of all different varieties. They were delicious and full of many ingredients tucked into a warm fresh crust. Another restaurant featured fondue and I ate enough cheese coated bread and potatoes to feel it in the morning. There was also the memorable pizza in the small restaurant on the first floor of our hotel. Combined with a jug of wine, it was the perfect end to a long day of strolling the city.
Travel around the city is easy if you ditch the car. The train and metro system is very good as well as reasonable. We had a two day unlimited pass that cost twelve euros, really an excellent deal considering the heavy workout that it received. The metro winds under the streets of the city. The underground metro stations are full of long winding tunnels going up and down stairs, splitting off in countless directions. Without the signs to lead the way, no one would ever find a way out.

We stayed in La Terminus Hotel, which is near the end of the train line, hence the name. It was a good hotel considering the bargain price of 49 euros per night. As mentioned above, the pizza shop run by the Manager was a nice touch. A hint if you ever stay there: to turn on the TV, press and hold the “4” button.
We rented a car in Rotterdam to make the journey. When picking up the car, the rental agent looked a little uncomfortable when handing over the keys, explaining that the color was a bit bold. This Fiat 500 was unlike any car I had seen before. Colored in a bubble gum pink, it drew attention everywhere we went. We got many double takes and people slowing down to take a look. In Europe, cars are usually muted colors, so this car stood out even more. It looked like Barbie and her friends should be driving. It was a good car though, and it added yet another fun detail to a good trip.

The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower is huge and is just as impressive during the day as it is at night. The tower is the size of an 81 story building and has been towering over Paris since 1887. The line to get to the top took about two hours, so we just strolled underneath among the sellers of memorabilia, the ducks, and the confused tourists.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame is distinctive and beautiful. Filled with stained glass, rosette windows, and carved stone. The outside has one of the most extensive collections of gargoyles in the world, bristling from every corner with menacing faces. There are also hundreds of carved statues outside the church. Construction started in the year 1160 and the design was on of the first to include flying buttresses.

In the great tradition of my blog, I found congress, twice!

Avenue des Champs Elysses and the Arc de Triomphe
The famed avenue, full of high class stores and people looking good. Busy and full of energy, it is fun for a street that mostly features stores. At the end of the street is the Arc de Triomphe. Inside the Arc is a winding staircase leading to a museum and to an observation deck on top of the Arc. The view is fantastic, especially at night. I thought it interesting that the museum did not see it fit to include the famous photo of German troops marching through the Arc during WW2, there is a bit of denial in the French character.
The Latin Quarter
In the Latin Quarter you find the classic winding, narrow ancient streets. Small stores and restaurants line the streets, which are closed to motor traffic. We were there on market day, which means all the shops had lots of merchandise out in front for sale. It was busy and lively. We even stopped in a small church along the way and listened in on a Roman Catholic mass given in French. Outside the church there was accordion music and dancing, many people having a good time.

The Louvre Museum
The famed home of the Mona Lisa also houses hundreds of thousands of other works of art. Considered the treasure house for the French people, the wide variety of art certainly makes for an interesting visit. The museum houses large collections of art from Europe going all the way back to a period of time called pre-history. There are small sections for American and Asian art, but they are clearly not a focus. We visited the Mona List and then headed to Roman and Greek art galleries.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Paris, France

Some videos I shot this weekend in France.

View from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, see down the Champs Elysees and the Eifel Tower lit up.

The Eifel Tower at Night

The Louvre Museum

Chartres, France

In the center of this very old town about one hour south of Paris stands a cathedral of world renoun. The Chartres Cathedral is nine hundred years old and boasts some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world. Construction lasted about 150 years, and little has been done to the cathedral since about the year 1260. The Cathedral avoided the wars and fires that have claimed so many other cathedrals throughout Europe.

The cathedral features flying butresses, gargoyles, and a labyrinth at the center for contemplative pacing. The stained glass windows live up to their fame and are quite beautiful.

Like all good ancient catholic churches, this cathedral even has a valuable relic. Featured near the back of the church, encased in many layers of glass and protected by iron bars, is a cloak that they claim was worn by Mary. The Mary. Recently they carbon dated it and it actually is from the first century.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Leiden, The Netherlands

It is hard not to love Leiden. It is beautiful, with an ancient feel, lots of canals, and a Saturday market that can not be beat. It is a very tourist friendly town, with a tourist office right next to the train station and a very helpful two hour loop marked throughout the town to see all the highlights.
The oldest reference to Leiden goes back to the year 860. This town of just of 100,000 features Leiden University, one of the oldest schools in Europe. They had their incoming student orientation this weekend, so I had a lot of company in town. The heyday of Leiden was in the 17th Century, so it is much smaller and less important than it once was. It is still a great place to visit.

In the center of town is De Burcht, a circular castle built upon a man made mound of earth. You can go up and walk on top of the wall and get a great view of the city. In the center of the castle is a very deep well that according to legend reached to the ocean. Stories of bodies dumped in the well winding up on the beach were popular, though untrue.
A visually stunning cathedral near the center of the city immediately draws your attention. The Hooglandse Kerk was built in the 15th Century. Unfortunately, it was not open for visitors, so all I could do was circle the outside.

Leiden was the refuge for the Pilgrims after they left England in their search for a place free of religious persecution. From 1609 to 1615 they made their home here, many teaching at the University. The Pilgrims found their children turning too worldly "Dutch" and decided to leave. In deciding to leave, the Pilgrims left Leiden, headed to Delft via the canals, then on to Delfshaven where they took the Speedwell to the New World. Well almost, the Speedwell took on too much water so it was traded for the Mayflower in England. The canal below is where the Pilgrims departed Leiden, first passing under the stone bridge in the direction of Delft.

Haarlem, The Netherlands

This large town is the namesake for Harlem, the famous namesake in New York City. The NYC Harlem was settled by many Dutch who originated in Haarlem and I imagine felt a bit homesick. Haarlem is due west of Amsterdam and a 50 minute train ride north of Rotterdam. It is a popular summer destination due to the proximity to the ocean and some popular beaches.

I found Haarlem to be an interesting town of winding streets and small shops and restaurants. Because I was there on a Saturday, the market in the central square was very active. I bought 250grams of freshly roasted cashews to munch on as I strolled the city.

Other than the great, interesting streets and winding pedestrian shopping district, there were only a few buildings that really drew my attention. Many of the most distinctive buildings surround the central square (the Grote Markt). The city hall is large and at one time was more impressive, but it burnt down in the early 1900's. There is a very old meat market building that I just could not get a good picture of. The brick and stone structure is very old and still in use, though no longer as a meat market. You can still see the carved decorative heads of cattle in the stone.

The most impressive building in the city is the Sint-Bavokerk Church. Built in the 1500's this building is very impressive and houses some interesting historical items. There is the organ that was played by both Mozart and Handel. There is the pronouncement issued when the town was under seige by the Spanish in the late 1500's. The pronoucement declared among other things that cats and dogs are now to be treated as food. This church was missing the impressive stained glass windows you would hope to see, it is not clear whether the windows were damaged over time or if they were never added.

I also went to the Haarlem Historical Museum, which though an ernest attempt was hardly worth the 4 euro admission fee. There was not much about the history of the city, considering the city is almost a thousand years old. Everything they had fit into one room. There was a separate display on the production of linen, which used to be an important industry in the are, but this only kept my attention for a few minutes.

An impressive structure worth noting is the Amsterdamse Poort, the only remaining gate from what used to be a series of walls and gates around the city.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Blaak Market

Every Tuesday and Saturday there is a large market in central Rotterdam. It is in a section called Blaak (pronounced Block). Blaak is an interesting part of the City, home to the famous cube houses, the pencil building, and a tram stop that looks like it would be a part of the Jetsons.

There are over 400 vendors selling everything you could want at very good prices. Those loyal readers who followed my blog two years ago will remember some posts about the markets I enjoyed in Uruguay.There is something special about open air markets. There is the thrill of discovery and the satisfaction of getting a good deal. The edibles tend to be extremely fresh and generally anything on offer is in season. Some highlights of the market include:

Cheese of course. Many varieties, great prices, and delicious

Fresh fish, cleaned at your request. Prices were very good and the fish was about as fresh as is possible without catching it yourself. There was a huge variety on offer, easily over 100 varients of fresh seafood.

The famous Stroopwafels, available only in the Netherlands. These "Syrup Waffels" are consumed by the millions by the Dutch and I can understand why. Stroopwafels are two paper thin wafels (cookies) that are pasted together with a very thin layer of carmel. You have not lived until you have had a fresh warm Stroopwafel straight off the grill. The carmel forms long strings that are a bit messy but cause extreme happiness.
Hats, clothes and fabric. Where else can you find a shirt for one euro?
The little pancakes called "Poffertjeskraams". These are similar to pancakes but cooked in a big pan with deep circular grooves. Each Poffer comes out egg shaped, with a chewy center. They are delicious right off the grill.
Fresh fruit and vegetables of every variety. The prices were about half what they charge in the supermarket.
And of course it would not be Dutch if there was not a wide selection of beautiful flowers.