A Travellerspoint blog

Thanksgiving in Seattle

Mukilteo - Seattle - Tacoma

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We had a road trip to Seattle for Thanksgiving. It took us about 14 hours to get there since we have to pull over every now and then for food, rest area, restroom, and we were also pulled over by a cop in Oregon for driving 80 mph at a 55 mph construction zone. Good thing he let us go with a warning. Fines are double in construction zone area. I think that if you can drive straigth up to Seattle, stopping only for fuel, you can get there in about 12 hours.

In Mukilteo, we've visited the light house, checked out the Ferry that can take you to Victoria, Canada, checked out the Boeing Tour by the Boeing plant where most of the residents work, and drove to Tulalip Casino and Resort. I really like their indoor, heated swimming pool in Tulalip. It was after Thanksgiving weekend when we went window shopping at the outlet mall next to it.

I was so excited when we visited Tacoma because that's when I finally get to see the Glass Museum and Chihully's Glass Bridge. It's free to cross the glass bridge, which connects the glass museum to the Union Station and downtown Tacoma. This is a definite must-see. Chihully's work were displayed in a number of glass shelves and there is even a glass roof covering a part of the bridge filled with his work.

Seattle was really the main highlight of our Thanksgiving. Early in the morning, we went to see the Space Needle and the Seattle Center, which is a campus around the Needle with museums, food courts, galleries, shops, fountains, and amusement rides. The Space Needle is really pretty at this time of the year, specially at night when it's all lit up with Christmas lights and holiday colors. The Space Needle ornaments that they were selling at the gift shop got me thinking. I can actually make ornaments out of the souvenirs I've collected from traveling and put them up in the tree on Christmas! This will definitely be in my project list.

We were planning to check out the famous Troll in the Fremont area but nobody knows how to get there so, we decided to check out an Underground Tour by the Pioneer Square station instead. You have to be really interested in history, engineering, or archaelogy to appreciate it. A lot of people think that it's like looking at a slum area filled with rusted wires, corroded pipes, water leakage, and walls that are falling apart. Depending on your tour guide, this place can be as interesting as any ruins or forgotten city - filled with history and soul.

There's a really good bakery in Pioneer Square called Cow Chip Cookies where people from everywhere go to buy their famous cow chip cookies. Price is as follows: chiplette .30, calf chip 1.50, cow chip 3.00, bull chip 6.00. Very rich and loaded with chocolate chips! My friends were picking up someone from the airport that day so, I decided to stay and meet up with them later. While in Pioneer Square, I went up Smith Tower's observation deck at the 35th floor to get a good 360 view of Seattle ($7 fee). It has an outside, open-air Observation Deck wrapped completely around all four sides of the historic Smith Tower providing breathtaking panoramic views of Mt. Rainier, and the Olympic, Cascade Mountain ranges, a closest view in town of Safeco Field, the wharf and the Colman Ferry Terminal, and the Pioneer Square. The Space needle is standing right at the end of 1st Avenue. It's such a great, breath-taking scenery from this tower - much better than the view from Space Needle, which I find really expensive ($17/person). Even the restaurant they have up there was too pricey. The crown jewel of the Smith Tower is the legendary 35th floor Chinese Room. The room’s name derives from the extensive carved wood and porcelain ceiling and the elaborately carved blackwood furniture that were gifts to Mr. Smith from the Empress of China. The observatory’s furnishings include the famed Wishing Chair, a product of the skill of a Chinese carver and incorporates a carved dragon and a phoenix, which when combined, portends marriage. Hence the chair came with the sentimental- and sexist- legend that any wishful unmarried woman who sits in it would be married within a year. I sat on the chair, wondering about the myth.

From the Smith Tower, I walked to the wharf and Ferry Station towards the Olympic Park. Then, I climbed up the Harbor Steps to get to the SAM (Seattle Art Museum). I didn't have time to check it out so I went to the gift shop instead. Afterwards, I went to Pike's Market Place to refuel. In the market place, I found this little store where they sell all kinds of spices and tea. I got some orange-spiced cinnamon tea and some BBQ marinate. There was a long line of people in this mini-doughnuts place, which I didn't get a chance to try. Instead, I went to get some ham and cheese piroshky at Piroshky Piroshyky. I've never seen as many different types of piroshkies as they have in this bakery. Next door is the first and original Starbucks and it was packed! Pike's Place is really big. I probably circled about three blocks to get a good feel of the place. There's just so many things to see and check out in each corner. Later that night, I meet up with my friends for the tree-lighting right outside Macy's, which is just a couple of blocks from Pike's Place. There are a lot of great stuff to check out in Seattle, specially if you're into art. I've seen so many really cool ones at the Olympic Sculpture Park and next time, I will definitely try to make it to the Fremont area to see the famous troll.

Posted by jptablante 17:01 Archived in USA Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

France, Spain, Mediterranean Cruise 2008 (Carnival Splendor)

France (Paris, Chantilly), Spain (Barcelona), Italy (Naples, Florence, Sicily, Rome, Vatican), Greece (Athens), & Turkey (Istanbul, Marmaris)


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My boyfriend's family organized a 12-day Mediterranean cruise with friends. So, we decided to make the most of our europe vacation by spending the week before the cruise in France and Spain. We flew into Paris first and stayed at this cute little hotel, next to the metro and a little grocery store and just a couple of blocks away from La Rue Cler! We spent a day touring Chateua de Versailles and had an amazing night on a boat tour of Seine river. The Eiffel tower comes alive at night with all the dancing blue colors in it with the accompanying music, which you can hear when you're near it. After a long day, we grabbed some crepe at La Rue Cler and called it a night. On our second day, we were pretty much all over Paris - touring museums, tourist spots, and local hang outs. I specially enjoyed Musée de l'Orangerie where I was able to wind down and just enjoy Monet's wall-sized paintings. The place is so relaxing and so intimate. We didn't get to visit Musée d'Orsay. Maybe on our next trip to Paris.

Now, here's a really memorable part: we missed the last train to Chantilly and we had to spend the night in the streets after Gare du Nord station closed at 1AM. Fortunately, we were able to pass some time at the bar restaurant across the street until it reopened at 4AM. We packed our day so tight and got lost finding Notre Dame. On top of that, we squeezed in a little trip to Moulin Rouge and walking around Montmartre really put us behind schedule. But, it was the lack of english-speaking staff at the train station that really cause us to miss that last train. If you get in the train without a ticket, you can get heavily fined or probably go to jail (I'm not sure). The kiosk stations are just not getting us the ticket we need. By the time we get to an open window to purchase tickets, the last train was gone. So, by the time we board the first train to Chantilly, I was so tired and sure enough, I got sick the next day. But, that didn't stop us from enjoying our trip. Chantilly is a beautiful town. We didnt' get to tour Chateau de Chantilly but it looks grand and beautiful! We stayed at my friend Susie's house. It's such a beautiful home at the quaint town of Gouveaux. She toured us around to a local winery set at La Cave (homes built in huge boulders/rocks).

The most amazing part of this trip for me is Barcelona. We were going to fly Ryanair but decided to fly easyjet for time and convenience. I fell in love with Gaudi's work at La Pedrera and Parc Guell. I love the area by Santa Maria del Mar and we actually had the best tapas in one of the restaurants behind the church. Barcelona is so rich in culture, history, great food, and warm people. I would never forget the night my husband and I danced with the locals in a square and in another occassion - randomly crashed some guy's birthday in a restaurant with such a huge crowd! We got carried away from the streets on our way home from the gothic quarter. I can hardly speak or understand Spanish but it doesn't matter. The Mercat de Sant Josep at Las Ramblas is our favorite market. All sorts of ham and interesting fruits! But, for souvernir shopping, the shopping mall at the end of Las Ramblas (facing the fountain) has lots of great stuff at such a good price. Plus, they have a food court on the top floor with great view! There were still a lot of Gaudi's work that we didn't get to see on this trip. Sagrada Familia was under renovation. Also, there are just so much other attractions, like Montserrat, that are a bit of a drive to get to. So, I promised myself that I will come back in Barcelona in 10 years and spend more time in Spain.

We flew in to Rome and navigate our way to a port in Civitavecchia, where Carnival Splendor first sailed the Mediterranean. It's far from the train station so we split a taxi cab ($5/person) with friends. You can take a local bus but it'll be a lot of waiting and figuring things out. Having a big group helped us get discounts on the cruise and tours. I shared a room with my boyfriend's sister and grandma. Cruise ships are fun. There were a lot of shows and activities (outdoor movies, karaoke, games & contests), themed buffet, shops, a night club, bars, casino, a library, swimming pools, a game arcade, a mini-golf, spa, gym - and the list goes on. You wake up in a new port (or country) each day and hop in to your tour bus on a full belly! The only disadvantage is that you don't get to enjoy a night life at your destination and you have to be back in the ship before a certain time (usually around 5pm). The rooms are always made up with towels folded into cute animal shapes with some chocolates. Each time you leave a port, they have themed bazaar and serve ethnic/international food. During our dinner one night, we were surprised when the servers started singing and dancing and put up a number. They're super friendly and very entertaining.

In Italy, we sailled to a port in Naples, Sicily, and Florence. Each place has it's own beauty. I enjoyed the lazy town feel of Amalfi Coast (off Naples) and I was mesmerized staring into the Meditterenean sea from the cute little fishing towns. It's so blue and very scenic. It warms my heart reliving that experience. Sicily wouldn't have been a great trip if we weren't rushed as much - between train and transportation from the port in Palermo. It's a beautiful town with a lot of local artisan shops and you'll forget climbing all the stairs after yo go from shop to shop. I had the best cannoli there. The mosaics at Palatine Chapel and the Duomo of Monreale is spectacular! In Florence, you don't have to go to the museum to enjoy history in art. It's in the plaza and everywhere you turn. You can even have David in your apron from one of the street shops! We also did a quick tour of the leaning tower of Pisa. I didn't realize how dramatic it is when viewed next to the cathedral. People made several silly pose taking pictures of the tower from a distance.

In Greece, we met up with Alejandro's friend, Ryan, and his girlfriend. They moved there for almost a year and Ryan had been working in archaeological sites. He showed us around Athens and brought us to a really nice and huge market where we had the best gyro... ever! I don't think I can easily get around Greece on my own. I haven't spoken to any locals in english and all the signs are in Greek! We had a hard time finding our way back to the port from the train station due to lack of English signs/translations.

In Turkey, we visited Ephesus from port of Izmir and also visited Marmaris, which is such a scenic port with calm water. In Istanbul, we had a busy day touring Hagia Sofia and other museums and going inside the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar is out of this world! You will easily get lost in all the mazes in this huge market place. I wish I can bring home all the beautiful lanterns and wonderful spices they have. What an amazing place to shop!

I learned many things on this trip when it comes to packing light and saving money, as well as shopping for souvenirs and coping with sickness during your trip. I had an amazing time and despite of the rough times from hustling around and making it to our flights, it was an amazing experience that I will never forget and I am already looking forward to our next trip back.

Posted by jptablante 12:21 Archived in Italy Tagged cruise mediterranean Comments (0)

Rome, Italy

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From Fiumicino airport, we took Leonardo express (€11) (you can also take TrenItalia) to Roma Termini (Convalidare). FMN1 (€5) train do not go to Termini but you can take the bus. I got excited to see Vogue, Italia magazine. I simply have to get one for my roommates. Termini station is pretty big and have lots of shops. Lockers are €3.50 for up to 5 hours per luggage then an additional €0.60/hour there after. They're open 6AM to midnight and are located downstairs, below the post office and and tourist info booth. Lines may be long so allow some time when checking in or picking up your luggage.

The tourist info desk printed out a list of hostels and hotels close to Termini station. We bought a phone card (€5)and started making calls to check for rates and availability. Some hostel operators do not speak English while others make an effort to communicate in limited English. We found a cheap place to stay at Hostel Sandy (€22/person/night for a quad/4-bed room with bath). It's just a few blocks north of the Termini station along Via Cavour. The hostel is not as clean. There are rooms with stinky roomies and we hear some people complaining on how they just can't simply sleep in that room. People there are friendly and you can leave your luggage with them even after you check out, while you do your tours and waiting to check in on your next hostel or hotel.

Along Via Cavour, you'll find really good, authentic food places and bakeries. It's where the locals hang out at night and where you'll really enjoy those crispy, thin pizza and canolli. There's a metro stop right on the street, too. The metro is less complicated with just Metro A and B (530AM to 9PM) - one North to South and the other East to West and takes you pretty much anywhere. A day pass is €4/person. Train ticket to Civitavechia is €4.50 per person (one way). We took the train to Civitavechia, where our Carnival Splendor cruise starts. The Carnival dock station is very far from the train station (about 4 km or 2 miles). We split a taxi with five people to save money (about €5/person). If you have plenty of time, walk to the entrance/gate of the port and take the bus that will take you to the dock.

We toured Rome before and after our Mediterranean cruise. We bought a Museo Nazionale Romano pass (€7) good for 3 days and includes unlimited metro and 4 museum passes plus discounts. The Roma Archaelogica Card (€20) is good for 7 days with unlimited metro and 9 museum passes plus discounts. After the cruise, we stayed with another couple at an apartment rental, right across San Giovanni Church and the one of the gates that leads to Appia Nova. It was a lovely, spacious apartment. At San Giovanni Church, I joined the pilgrimage and prayed on my knees as I climb up the Scala Santa (what believed to be the steps walked up by Christ on his way to trial before Pontius Pilate). Appia Nova is known for its catecombs and the old remains of Roman aqueducts. However, we also enjoyed the country side feel and the locals hanging out at the park and exercising in the outdoor gym! It's so fun to watch people and walk around the aqueducts. This place is also known for fountains where locals fetch fresh drinking water.

To get to the aqueduct, take Metro A-Anagnina and get off Subagusta, which is also where you can find major bus lines (Bus 557, 451, 503, 552, 558, 559, 590, 650, 654. Exit toward direction of Tito Labieno and walk 600m to the park. When you cross via Quintilo, you know you're on the right way. Cross via Lemonia and you're there. Another way is to find via Tuscolona, which is in between the Subagusta and Cinecitta Metro stop. Continue on this street until you cross via Lemonia. This will take you the main park entrance where you can find a map of the park. The aqueduct is behind the tall pipe that runs through the park. Find the stair that will let you cross that tall pipe and on the other side of it you'll find the aqueducts. This is a great park with a lot of people usually playing soccer, walking their dogs, or enjoying a nice bike ride or stroll.

The tour of ancient Rome was most surprising because the ancient monuments and buildings are right in the middle of the modern city. The Colosseum/Roman Amphitheater was so big, and so hard to imagine it being built so long ago. I was most surprised that the floor wasn’t exactly a floor. The second floor has the museum and gift show and model The actual floor had fallen through, and what you could see were the underground hallways and elevators that ran under the floor. Next to the Colosseum/Roman Amphitheater and past the Arch of Constantine is the Imperial Forum "Avenue", walk by the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. The Mouth of Truth, best known from the film "Roman Holiday". It's hard to find and it's outside a medieval church near the Roman Forum. Palatine Hill with the residence of the Roman Emperors. Venice Square (Piazza Venezia) has a huge and impressive monument of King Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of Italy and an Unknown Soldier.

My favorite part of Rome was definitely the Trevi Fountain. Its so gorgeous, and anyone visiting Italy really needs to stop and see it. We stop at the Trevi Fountain where king Neptune's Tritons guard the sparkling waters of the massive monument and each of us tossed a coin into the Fountain to ensure our return to the Eternal City. Then, we walked to the Pantheon (where you can find the grave of the great Italian Renaissance painter and architect, Raphael). This is a good place to try some good gelato (€2.50 by the fountain). We saw this angel's wings wax sculpture by the window of a shop and took picture of it with one of us in front of it. We continued on to Piazza Navona where the magnificent baroque Fountain of the Four Rivers by Gianlorenzo Bernini awaits. Unfortunately, it was going through a restoration process and all boarded up. The rivers symbolize the four quarters of the world: the Danube for Europe, the Nile for Africa, the Ganges for Asia and the Rio della Plata for America.

The Triton Fountain, in Barberini Square and along Via Veneto, is a very elegant street wiht the most fashionable sidewalk cafes, expensive shops, and luxurious hotels. We took the metro and followed Via Veneto to the Borghese Gardens and Museum. The Borghese Museum is only through reservation. It was one of my favorite museums with vast collection of work that are intriguing and I probably learned a lot on Greek mythical history through the sculptures. We passed the Aurelian Walls, the most ancient defence of the Romans against the Barbarians, surrounding St. Paul's Basilica. Past People Square with its imposing obelisks and Sant'Angelo Fortress(from via della Conciliazione), is the ancient Hadrian Mausoleum. Finally, we walked to the Spanish Steps, which was packed with a lot of people. Taking "finding Waldo" pictures was fun! We walked up and down the steps before finally heading out to a local resturant. Unfortunately, we hated the food they served. They're very salty and nasty! So, we decided to get something else to eat at McDonald's near the obelisk for the Virgin Mark. It's the first McDonald's in Rome and just couple of blocks away from the bottom of the Spanish Steps. At least we also get to use the restroom for free and lots of seating - two things that are usually difficult to find in heavy touristy area. We walked back up the Spanish Steps afterward to Piazza Novena.

We met our tour guide for the Vatican tour at the Porta di Bronzo, the Bronze Gate, containing many of Bernini's outstanding masterpieces, including the statue of the Emperor Constantine. In the Cappella Niccolina, the Pope's private place of worship, you'll find frescoes painted by the famous painter Fra Angelico representing scenes fromt he lives of St. Stephen and St. Lawrence. There's also the 65-meter long gallery with paintings represnting 52 religious scenes by Raphael Loggia. Our tour started at the Vatican Museum - the richest storehouse of art in the entire world. I was amazed by the sheer size and collection of the incredible collections displayed in the Tapestry and Geographical Maps galleries, the Candelabra Gallery and the magnificent Raphael Rooms until we reached the Sistine Chapel - where Michelangelo's breathtaking frescoes and dramatic technique development in the chapel's ceiling is now fully restored to their original colors. There are masterpieces by Botticelli, Signorelli, Perugino and, of course, the breathtaking "Genesis" and "Last Judgement" by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel can change its hours at short notice so make sure that you double check with them its schedule before you start your tour so you can work around the time it's open. The Sala degli Ori is where precious Etruscan fewels are displayed and more precious objects given for devotion to the Basillica can be seen at St. Peter's Treasure. St. Peter Basilica is believed to have been erected over the St. Peter's tomb over several other churches. It is famous for the mosaic medallions (no oil paintings) with the portraits of various Popes. To realize its enormity, look at the metal markers on the floor of the main nave, which sow the comparative lengths of other churches and cathedrals. Looking up the ceiling to the dome, you'll see how tiny those people who are walking around the base of the dome. Suspende dover the alter, where the Pope celebrates mass, is Bernini's gilded papal canopy called Badacchino. In the apse is the splendid gilt and bronze throne. Finally, we viewed the best-known pieces of sculpture in the workd, Michaelangelo's white marble - the Pieta.

There are three post office in the Vatican. Two of them are inside the Vatican museum (near the cafeteria and by the giftshop) and one on the left side of the church, next to the bookstore. I bought some stamps for my dad, who loves to collect stamps. We took more pictures outside by the base of the Obelisk and with the Swiss guards and with me spreading out my feet between the border line of Rome and the Vatican. I was finally in two cities at once! I also love all the nice and cheap shops by the Vatican where we bought most of our souvenirs - like an apron with Italy's map, magnets, and scarves.

DINING AND SHOPPING on a budget:

  • Castel Romano Outlet Mall where you'll find discounted designer clothes and stores situated along quaint avenues and small piazzas.
  • Via Urbana - best pizzaria, cannoli, and where most people enjoy nighlife. It's easy to find cheap and good quality food in this area - pizza (€2.50), three course meal (pimi, segundi, salad) for €12.50, internet (€1.50/hour), 1.5L water bottle (€2)

    Other wonderful places to check out in Rome:

  • Old Ostiense Way, crossing the ancient borders of the city and driving through the Aurelian Walls, passing by St. Paul's Gate and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, a Roman Magistrate who was so impressed with the Pyramids of the Pharaohs that he built one for himself. Circus Maximus, where the chariot races were held.
  • Pass the ultra-modern suburb of Eur, the district built for the World Exhibition in Rome in 1942.
  • See the Chigi's Chapel inside Santa Maria del Popolo Church, where the murdered first Cardinal Ebnes can be found, Santa Maria della Vittoria Church where Cardina Guidera was burned alive and materpice is the symbol of the Fire Element. Admire the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, by Bernini.
  • Pass the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the Circus Maximus, the famouse arena of the Chariots Racing, and th Imperial Avenue.
  • Cross the Tiber River - A little walk away from St. Peter's Square.
  • Along the new Appian Way, which runs adjacent to the old one, see the enchanting Campagna with its rolling hills and lush farmlands dotted with farmhouses, villas and palaces until you reach the Lake of Albano, settled in the crater of an extinct volcano. Continue to the top of the nearby hill and stop for a short stroll in the lovely medieval town of Castelgandolfo and visit the Popes' Palace and Gardens summer residence. Drive through the gentle hills and undulating fields of Rome's wine growing hinterland and stop at Montegiove Farm House. Meet Count Raimondo Moncada, who will introduce you to the history of his noble family and invite you in for an aperitif of his favorite terrace overlooking the Tyrrheanian Sea and the beaches of Anzio and Nettuno.

Posted by jptablante 01:03 Archived in Italy Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

Barcelona, Spain - Europe Vacation 2008

Gaudi - Tapas - Architecture - History - Lifestyle

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Instead of going to Venice before heading to Rome, we've decided to visit Spain. I’ve always wanted to see Gaudi's work in Barcelona and places that I’ve only seen in movies like Parc Guell in Les Poupees Russes and La Sagrada Familia. The changing weather started challenging my immune system so I bought a box of Vitamin C (€2.50) from the airport. The Renfe train (€2.70) took us to the city (Barcelona-SANTS station) in 20 minutes. The train station is quite a walk to and from the airport so it’s hard when you have a lot of luggage to wheel around. It took 15-20 walk to the train station. So, allow yourself some extra time to get to the main flight terminal when takin the train to the airport. The transportation (train, Metro) in Barcelona is not as convenient as the other places we’ve visited. The Metro system in the city is a big maze that branches out in all directions. There are several points of transfer and sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it'll be a long walk to transfer to the next line. It’s common to see people running in the long halls to catch the next metro. It can get really hot and steamy down there during the day, much more in summer. It's a great place to do some people watching and listen to street musicians. We bought T-10 1 Zone L5 Metro card (€7.20), which is good for 10 rides and is shareable with other people.

We were booked for 3 nights at Felipe II hostel, which is fairly close to the Metro and near La Sagrada Familia. We didn't know that the main office is on the 5th floor and we skipped the narrow, old-fashioned elevator, which could have made it easier for us. It was a mess! They can not find our reservation and the room that we’re supposed to get is already occupied. Fortunately, we have the email that describes the whole correspondence (price, a non-smoker, double room). They had us take a look at couple of rooms. They're horrible - super tiny and no windows). We were so thankful when the owner offered a quad room with balcony in the center of city - by Las Ramblas, for an extra €8/night (total is €55/night). Pension Sangre at 1 Carrer de Simo eller (next to Boga / Sofra 18 restaurant) is right at the other end of Las Ramblas. We had the whole floor to our self for 2 nights and it was just a perfect location, so close to everything and so full of life at night. It’s supposed to be a bad neighborhood according to the reviews but from our experience, it’s one of the best place to stay. We walked around Barri gothic that night and tried to find some good Tapas but most of the shops and restaurants are closed. We tried some “tapas” at El Setial (€20 for 2) and they’re quite good. There are a lot of historic and artistic museums, castles, remains, aqueducts, and the streets are still in the traditional stone paved roads lay-out.

We were going to check out the aqueducts and medieval towns in Tarragona, an hour away from Barcelona, the following day but decided to spend more time with the city instead. Gaudi’s work and signature is in every corner of Barcelona. La Pedrera (€9.50 each) is amazing and it’s where I really had a 101 on Gaudi’s life and work. It made me see the real genius behind Gaudi's creativity. His techniques were out of this world and yet so earthy. It’s just a matter of seeing and understanding how labor-intensive, imaginative, innovative, and futuristic his ideas and works are to feel that high level of respect and appreciation to his work. The roof of La Pedrera is marvelous. A good 360 view of some of the major highlights of Barcelona can be seen from here, including La Sagrada Familia and Torre Agbar - a bullet-shaped tower by Jean Nouvel, which displays a great light show at night. Casa Amattler, Casa Batllo (€17 fee) and La Sagrada Familia (€14 fee) are very inspiring and just plain unbelievable - especially during his time. La Sagrada Familia narrates the joy of Jesus birth and the passion of His death through the 14 stations of the cross and the Sorrowful Mystery carved in stone. There are a lot of restoration projects going on in Barceona (and even in other parts of Europe) that it's probably worth visiting these places again to see what the "original" work is really like.

Parc Guell is my favorite place in Barcelona. It’s full of surprises and it gives me as much happiness as seeing Disneyland the first time. This is an extraordinary park filled with colorsful tiles pieced together in creative, unique patterns filled with character and surprises and a gothic touch. This is where I really experience a powerful unison of art, nature, engineering, and architecture in perfect harmony. It's quite a hike to get up there and the Metro is quite far from there but it's a definite must see and it's free! You can also take a bus or two by walking throgh a shop-filled street to the major street. The buses are usually packed though. One good souvenir I found here is a replica of the colorful iguana (€5) that Parc Guell is known for but it's made of foam instead of a breakable ceramic. It still has the shiny, colorful tile and it actually looks like a ceramic souvenir at first.

Museo Picasso is the place to understand the life and mind of Picasso through his art. You can see the changes and stages that he’s going through from his paintings and you can almost feel his thoughts through the complexity and abstract behind his work. I was surprised to not find a replica of Guernica. The museum was a little hard to find in a labyrinth of streets since finding the streets’ name can sometimes be a challenge. But near the museum are restaurants, shops, and chocolate/dessert stores. Granjala Pallaresa is a popular place to try some churros con chocolate (€4 for two). Since the summer is over, I was not able to try any horchatas (made from almond nut).
Not far from there is the best Tapa place that we’ve tried and it's in a place called Sagardi, which is near the church of Santa Maria del Mar (by Jaume Metro stop). For €20, we were able to share 8 different tapas and a wine. They are really great, authentic, mouth-watering, and tummy-filling tapas. There are other tapa places like Café-bar Xador at Argenteria 61-63, but they’re not as great and very pricey, too. In the same square, you’ll find several gelato places, shops, and restaurants. On our way back to the “pensione” (bed and breakfast place), we passed by a crowd gathered at the courtyard of Archeologica de Barcelona. They were dancing different traditional/ballroom/folk dances. We tried the Polka and it was really fun. For some reason, it always end up in a big, endless loop/circle as they go around and try to get the people to join the “dance train”. There’s a guy playing an accordion, harmonica, drums, guitar, and there’s one singing. It was awesome! I could have danced endlessly in that square.

Whereever we go, we always end up walking along the busy hub of Las Ramblas. It stretches from Monument a Colom (a memorial to the great explorer Christopher Columbus) in the south to Placa de Catalunya. This is where you'll find human statues dressed in fancy costumes and waiting to surprise passersby with a sudden movement. It's filled with shops, restaurants, internet cafes, etc. Near the Colom is "Easy" Internet cafe, which charges €2 per 47 minutes and it's just around the corner from Palau Guell (€9 fee), another marvelous work by Gaudi. Midway of Las Ramblas, you'll find Mercat - La Boqueria where you should sample and buy different "jamon" (hams), native fruits, cheap coffee, pastries and baguettes (€1-2). You should try this fruit called Pitchaya (€2). It looks strange but very delicious! At the end of Las Ramblas and the beginning of Placa de Catalunya, you'll find a good tourist information center where you can buy a BCN card, which is a great way to get free Metro passes and discounts to museums and other highlights of Barcelona. It's by the Metro station across from the fountain. In this area, you'll also find El Corte Ingles, a shopping mall with a big food court a top the 9th floor. This is a good place to find some good souvenirs that are fairly priced and buy less pricey food from the supermarket at the ground floor. I bought a nice kitchen towel here with a print of La Sagrada Familia for (€6.50).
The Montjuïc is a hill located near the center of Barcelona (Metro: Espagna station). It features a large number of attractions including the Spanish Village, the Montjuïc Castle and a large number of sights and attractions, most of them originating from two major events that took place here: the 1929 International Exhibition and the 1992 Olympics - the Anella Olímpica. With the arrival of the Olympics in 1992, the many gardens on the Montjuïc were given renewed attention and since several new gardens were added. Some of the most interesting are the Nou Jardí Botànic, a botanic garden with more than 2000 different plants created in the 1990s and the Jardins de Mossen Costra i Lljobera, with hundreds of different types of cactuses.

Palau Nacional (National Palace) is the central pavilion of the International Exhibition. The majestic building in neo-baroque style is home to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya (MNAC). Its collection includes Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art as well as 19th and 20th century works of art. Another remainder of the 1929 Exhibition is the Poble Espanyol (Spanish village), a collection of houses in different Spanish architectural styles. The village was originally slated for demolition after the end of the Exhibition, but due to its popularity it was kept intact.
The oldest sight on the Montjuïc is the Castell de Montjuïc, a large 18th century fortress, originally built for the defense and now houses the Museu Militar (military museum). The fortress can be reached by a funicular and cable-lift, which starts at the Paral-lel metro stop. At the center of a plaza in front of the Palau Nacional is the Font Màgica or Magic Fountain, which consists of a series of cascades and fountains between the Palau National, the main exhibition center on the Montjuïc, and the Plaça d'Espanya at the foot of the hill. From here, you have a great view of the palace, especially at night when both the building and the fountain are illuminated. The colorfully lit fountains dance with different water forms and exhibitions with the music played every top of the hour. People gather around it at night to watch its grace. Right next to the fountain is the Pavelló Mies van der Rohe, built by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. Like all other pavilions, the German pavilion was demolished after the exposition, but since it is considered one of van der Rohe's most influential works. It was reconstructed in the 1980s. The glass and marble building is typical for Mies van der Rohe's work, whose maxim was 'less is more'.
Barcelona is a fusion of traditional and modern, young lifestyle filled with rich history, art, culture, and love for life. It's a place where people embrace everyday living, take lots of siesta, and laugh and dance the night away. During our short 3-day stay in Barcelona, we realized how there's just so much of the place to experience and see that it will keep you coming back for more.

Posted by jptablante 13:45 Archived in Spain Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

France - Europe Vacation 2008

Paris, Versaille, and Chantilly-Gouvieux in France

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View Europe in 3 weeks - France, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece on jptablante's travel map.

We booked our flight through Vayama.com and flew Canada Air ($1,154 per person) from San Francisco (SFO) to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and back to SF from Rome's Fiumicino Airport (FCO). Flights are easier and cheaper when you’re in Europe. We looked up flights from EasyJet, Ryanair, and Vueling to find convenient and affordable flights from Paris to Barcelona, Spain and then to Rome. We decided to book with Vueling because they fly to major airports and their requirements and charges for check-in and luggage are more reasonable. Despite of cheap airfares (Ryanair even offers free airfare), you may end up paying more than what you’ve expected if you have luggage(s) to check in (€15 for check-in and €9 per luggage) and also when using your own credit card (versus using credit cards offered by the airline). To prepare for the trip, I checked out guidebooks and language books from the local library. They usually allow you to keep the book for at least a month and you can always renew return dates online. I like Rick Steve's guidebooks over Frodor’s or Lonely Planet because he offers tips and recommendations if you're on a budget. Most of the maps are hand sketches so, it's more updated and have more helpful legends you can follow (such as special entrance for pass holders or bike rental places nearby). One thing that you have to keep in mind though is that sometimes, the cost reflects the quality of your food or place. Don’t expect a really nice, quiet room if it was ranked as the cheapest place to stay in the guidebook. Pay attention to the descriptions and location.

In Paris, we booked a double room at Hotel Royal Phare (€79/night, total of €90 or $120 with the booking fee), next to rue Cler and few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars. It’s right next to a Metro station, a grocery store, and post office/money exchange place. There’s also a RER station (to Versailles or the airport) nearby. If you don’t want to walk to the RER station, you can take the Metro and transfer. I have to pay extra for a room away from the streets (and facing the courtyard) because I thought that the streets might be too noisy at night (something we learned from our trip in Mexico). However, the streets are pretty nice and quiet at night, even if you're in this central part of Paris. Making a reservation is usually hard to do for some of the budget hotels because most do not offer online booking and if you call them, some of them do not speak or have a hard time speaking in English. Some require calling or faxing them for confirmation. I also checked out several postings for sublets/temps/vacation rentals at Craigslist.com and they’re actually cheap (€30-70 / night) and really nice. They’re privately owned apartments or rooms and some of them are in the outskirts of Paris, which is okay since there are buses and subway Metro that can take you there. The trust issue is the only thing that’s stopped us from trying this type of accommodation.

The transportation system in Paris is pretty cheap, convenient, and can take you anywhere. A carnet or 10 shareable, tickets (€10.90, which is 30% cheaper than buying tickets individually) are good for both street buses and the Metro/subway. You can not use it in RER trains to get to the airport or to Versailles. It’s always good to remember to be polite and greet people with "bonjour" and thank them with "merci beaucoup", and bid them “au revoire (good-bye) whenever you interact with people. We only have a day and a half in Paris and then we’re off to Chantilly to visit Susie in Gouvieux, north of Paris.

Hotel Royal Phare was a great choice because it’s close to transportation, museums, activities, and local scenes, which saved us a lot of our precious time. At the CDG airport, the exchange rate was not that great and they also charge you with €5 commission. I picked up a tourist map and bought a 2-day Paris museum pass (€30) from the tourist information desk at the airport, and a carnet for the Metro (€ 10.90 Euro). It’s good to pick up a Pariscope magazine (€0.40) for museum schedule, shows, events, maps, info.) The RER B train to Paris (€6) has to be validated and it took us about 40 minutes (including transfer to Metro) to get to our hotel. Gare du Nord is the main transfer station, where you can transfer to any Metro subway lines, train lines (e.g TER to Chantilly), and this is also where you can transfer to RER C to Versailles.

After checking the guidebooks, we knew that most museums will be closed on Monday (we arrived on a Sunday). We weren’t able to see Musee d'Orsay (€7.59, free with Museum Pass) because we decided to check-in to our hotel before heading down to see the Chateaux de Versailles (€13.5, free with pass) and the Gardens (€7 for the fountain show). The Chateaux is just couple of blocks away from the RER station and it was a beautiful walk. It gives you a good feel of the local lifestyle with the smell of espressos and pastries in the air. And the sight of McDonalds and Starbucks across the station definitely made me feel like… home! Museum Pass holders have a special line, which bypass long lines and made you feel like a VIP. Audio guides are extra (€3) and they come in different languages. There are museum maps in different languages. The castle has a lot of great collections and the Hall of Mirrors is a definite must see. There is some kind of modern art exhibit that was going on that week that it caught us by surprise to see a white and gold glossy statue of Michael Jackson sitting with a Monkey) in the middle of one of the castle’s rooms. That definitely added more fun and a little twist to the whole experience. I watched the fountain show in the gardens from inside the castle and it was amazing. The music made it even more dramatic. The Gardens are filled with different interesting angles, landscaping, fountains, art pieces, and each corner is very unique with its own character or personality that draws you to a different light. It’s thrilling to know that there’s something amazing waiting to surprise you each time you turn a corner. The Grand Canal is a long man-made lake where people can boat or just enjoy the sunny afternoon laying in the grass area. There are also bicycles that you can rent to see the whole garden and the outskirts. We were not able to see the House of Marie Antoinette but I’m sure that it’s as marvelous as the chateaux. It’s nice to watch the sun go down and watch the Gardens go to sleep as people start to leave. We took another look of the town and passed by this huge, mountain-like pile of empty crates covering the back of a building as if a back wall is missing and crates were used to fix that problem. As it turned out, we were looking at the back of a Modern Art Museum. That was incredible! Oh by the way, running to our friend Steve (who was with his family and a Korean bus tour) inside the chateux is the a big surprise on this trip.

We headed back to Paris via RER C and bought a Siene River boat tour at night (€11 Bateaux Parisiens). There was a cheaper boat tour for €8 but we missed the last tour. The Eiffel Tower has this amazing light show at night. It was wrapped up in blue lights throughout and then every half hour or so, there’s this sparkling lights (like star lights) in the ENTIRE tower! It was a quite a sight at night! The boat tour at night was a great idea because it gives you an overview and an educational tour of the historic side of Paris. It also allows you to see several illuminated sights near the river at night. The night illumination tours, hop-in and out (of boats or buses) tours, and bicycle or Segway tours or rentals are some of your options to experience Paris. A 4-hr by bike night tour / illumination tour usually costs €28 and bike rental is about €2 EUR/hour until 7PM. After the boat tour, we headed back to our hotel after checking out rue Cler and sharing a ham and chese crepe (€3).

The next day, Monday, we tried to beat the long lines of tourists (mostly brought by tourist buses) by heading out early (around 8AM) to the Eiffel Tower. Since most museums are closed on Mondays, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre were heavily packed. There was a delicious pastry shop couple of blocks east of the Eiffel (next to a flower shop) and that’s where we had breakfast. At the Eiffel Tower, you can climb the stairs to the first floor or take the elevator to the 2nd floor (€4) or get a ticket to get to the top of the tower (€11). We checked out each level after enjoying the view at the top of the tower. The souvenirs at the 2nd floor were pretty expensive. It’s best to buy your souvenirs at this market place-like shop next to McDonalds at the CDG airport (I can’t remember if it was Terminal 1 or 3). They're much cheaper and has more selection. After seeing the Eiffel Tower, we headed back to our hotel to check out. Then, we grabbed some food and water at the market next to it and went to the post office next door to get some Euros. Again, we have to pay €5 commission. It’s probably cheaper to just use your ATM (banks usually charge 3%) instead of carrying your dollars and paying that steep commission (5% out of a €100). We didn’t have time to see Napoleon's Tomb/Army Museum (€8.5, free with pass). Bus 46 from the corner of Champes Elysee gave us a great tour of the city on our way to Gare du Nord, where we rented a mid-size locker (€7, which fits a backpack, a small luggage, and a shopping bag). Then, we took the Metro to the Louvre, which took us right inside Louvre by the inverted, glass pyramid. There’s a free bag check-in at the entrance and with the Museum Pass, a speedy entry! Instead of getting an audio guide, we decided to just follow the museum map and to read the laminated information sheets available in each room exhibits. The Winged Victory greeted us on our way to see Mona Lisa and more of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. A window nearby frames the two pyramids outside the museum beautifully. The Louvre is above extraordinary. Different hallways and huge rooms are filled with Italian paintings, sculptures, and rare collections, gems, and legendary pieces.

Outside of Louvre, you can enjoy the fountains of Jardin des Tuileries and follow it across to the other end to see Musee Orangerie, which houses Monet’s paintings. Here you can really examine the details and intricacy of his work. Next to it is Place de la Concorde, marked by a giant obelisk and a really nice fountain, which are both illuminated and quite a sight at night. You can walk to Arc de Triomphe (€8, free with pass) but it’s easier and faster (except on rush hour) to take Bus 33. Bus schedules and route map are usually posted at the bus stops. Surprisingly, you can never find a copy to take with you from the train stations or tourist booths. From Arc de Triomphe, we took another bus to see Liberty’s replica in a small island in the middle of the Siene River (near Radio France). We were able to see Notre Dame around sun set. We missed their free concert that night. The Latin Quarter was nearby and that area seems to have a great nightlife. Finally, we jumped into the Metro, which took us right next to Moulin Rouge at the Montmartre area. We were able to get a glimpse of Sacre-Coeur on our way back to Gare du Nord. And this is when we run out of luck. We have about 40 minutes before the last train leaves to Chantilly. However, this train station is really huge and you can easily get lost (so you have to keep on checking the map) trying to get to the right place. We split up: one to get the tickets and the other to pick up our luggage from the locker. The line took forever since there are only two windows open and the people behind the ticket windows are limited with their English. We tried the automatic ticket booths but it won’t accept our credit cards. You may actually have to leave your card instead of swiping it (although it looks like a card swipe system) for it to read your card. The tourist information desk closes at 4PM so we run out of resources by that time. We bought a phone card (€7.5 for 1 hour) and called Susie to tell her that we’re not going to make it that night. We slept at the train station until 1AM. By then, the train station was about to close that we ended up staying at a restaurant across the street until 4PM and ordered some bruschetta and beer. The station re-opened at 5PM and we weren’t able to board the train (TER- €7) to Chantilly until 7AM. It was a long and tiring night but somehow it was something nice to remember. The lesson from this story is to always play it safe when it comes to arranging your transportation. If possible, buy tickets ahead of time.

Chantilly is such a lovely town known for its horses. The Chateaux de Chantilly was also covered by the museum pass (normally €15) but our pass expired that day and the castle was close. However, seeing the castle and enjoying a walk with close friends and loved one around that area is something that I’ll always remember. We followed a trail around the horse race area next to the castle. There’s a live horse museum that displays different breeds of horses across the street from the castle and they usually have a show that’s a definite must-see. Susie’s home is really lovely and her family is so adorable! She loves traveling, teaching, meeting people, and supporting charitable causes. Their place is adorned by wood beams, wooden stairs, cute windows with those traditional blinds (and their interesting mechanism) and intimate lay-outs, which are probably signature of a French countryside home. Around the house, you’ll find decors from around the globe, which they probably picked up from their travels. Living in the country side is very refreshing and heart-warming. The people are very friendly and hospitable. We went to see La Cave, which are homes built within massive rocks and boulders. There were these really nice gentlemen who gave us a tour of their humble winery inside La Cave and showed us their vineyard nearby. Amazing! They are local wine producers that supply local households who are willing to support their non-profit wine operation. On the way back, we passed by more beautiful homes and breath-taking views and cute, narrow streets.

We had a feast that night with Susie’s specialty soups, crepes, and delicious gala of cheeses and wine. I wish we could have stayed longer but our flight to Barcelona is waiting and it was real fortunate (and convenient) that her husband, Philip works at the airport. He was able to drop us off on his way to work and we were able to hear more stories about their travel and family on our way to the airport. The weather is one of the things that will always be unpredictable. That Pashmina scarf/shawl that Susie gave me really come in handy against the changing weather.
Our Vueling flight to Barcelona was €100.14 for two or about $70 per person, including one check-in luggage. Our other options, RyanAir (check out their free flights) and EasyJet fly to airports further from the city and the length and cost of commute from and to the airport is something we had to consider. Miscellaneous charges (ex: for having check-in baggage, for using your VISA/MC, etc.) is something we kept an eye on as well. The key to saving money, time, and energy is packing and traveling light and doing your research on services (restaurants, money exchangers, internet, lockers, taxi, metro/bus, tourist discount pass, laundry services, etc).

Posted by jptablante 16:18 Archived in France Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (0)

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