Sunday 30 November 2008

Running in London Rain

We passed by a travel agency this morning where they actually had the Contiki brochure in which we did a photoshoot! With my usual luck; however, it was definitely not open!

No visit to London would be complete without visiting Hyde Park. Covering 350 acres with over 4,000 trees, Hyde Park serves as a getaway from the busy city. Being December, there was also a WinterWonderland complete with snow and ice skating.

Hyde Park on a dreary, yet still nice London afternoon

Speaker's Corner, in the northeast part of the park, allows individuals to publicly speak or declare their opinions on a variety of subjects. It was here that George Orwell and Marcus Garvey voiced their thoughts and points. Make note; however, that it might not always be occurring in the winter months.

10:41AM - Marble Arch picture. Must get to Princess Diana's Memorial and then to Buckingham Palace at 11:30AM to watch the changing of the guards.

The Marble Arch comprised of Carrara-marble

10:48AM - Running around Kingston Gardens, but where is Princess Di's Memorial? Oh, what a hunt!

I jumped back in the tube to get to Buckingham Palace in time. It wouldn't be a complete trip to London without running in the rain!

11:29AM: I reach the Palace, but where's the changing of the guards? After a few minutes, I notice the sign: Changing of the Guards is canceled today. Always my luck! However, it was nice to see the British monarch's official residence.

Buckingham Palace in her glory

At the train station of King's Cross, one receives another passport stamp (for a total of 3!) and luckily Cafe Nero accepted credit card with no minimum as I spent the rest of my 1.60pounds on a 1.99pound shot glass. As I received my panini, the cafe worker stated, "I hope you like it; it's not good." Ahaha.... Will miss you, London!

Saturday 29 November 2008

The Jewels of London

Leslie and I started the morning by taking pictures on the one and only London Bridge. The modern bridge, opened in 1973, lies roughly 860 feet long and carries five lines of A3.

London Bridge; it's not falling down.

We then headed off to the Tower of London to learn the city's great history! The best exhibit was the Crown Jewels, which showcased a beautiful collection of gems and stones. There in the gift shop, I also found the perfect wallet - functional and trendy!

The London Tower - a must see!

A necklace in the Crown Jewels collection

Walking across the Tower Bridge provided great pictures as well. Originally painted brown, it was repainted in 1977 as red, white and blue for the Queen's Silver Jubilee. We then took the bus to the Shakespeare Globe.

Tower Bridge

Note: Make sure you are at the right bus station! The station is different depending on which side of the intersections you're on.

Christmas Markets are plentiful and beautiful in London! At Covenant Garden Market, gloves were only 3pounds. The markets provided great photography as well.
Jubilee Market, next to Covenant Market was small, but provided nice crafts. There was an amazing Audrey Hepburn matted drawing that I wanted, but I was able to refrain. Maybe next time!

Covenant Garden Market

We headed off to Leicester Square for theater tickets at half price. However, by that afternoon, tickets were either all sold out or super expensive. I was able to grab a 37.50pound seat to "Imagine This."

Before the show, a trip to the contemporary art museum of Tate Modern was a necessity! Tate Modern is Britain's national museum of international modern art. And it's free - love it!

I went back to Covenant Market for the photography frame where I gave the artist all my remaining pounds. Power-walking to get to the show on time, I backtracked to Leicester Square to the New London Theater. This was actually a good move as I forgot my new gloves at the Covenant Garden Market!
A fantastic Broadway show!

"Imagine This" was fantastic as it was based on a Jewish family forced into the ghettos of Warsaw, Poland. The father wanted to continue the play to inspire others and give them hope. At the conclusion, the family has to decide if they want to warn the others in the community or save themselves. Of course, a love story ties into the play and the effects (i.e. gunshots) sounded ridiculously real.

Ironically, a Texan couple sat next to me and told me that they were proud of me for coming to Europe. Sure thing! The show ended with a World Aids Day announcement asking for donations to the theaters MAD (Making a Difference) Fund. Good idea!

With only 1.60pounds left, I successfully found a Subway! Unfortunately, the sandwich was only 3pounds and it was 5pounds minimum for credit card. So I ordered a drink...4pounds. And then a cookie...4.60pounds. How about a donut? 5pounds and 30 cents! Phew! There's just too much to do and see in London!

Friday 28 November 2008


The experience of taking the Eurostar is quite like going through the airport, yet the difference - one can show up much later (only thirty minutes before)! After getting my e-ticket boarding pass from the kiosk, I filled out the landing card, and went through security. I was pleasantly surprised that even before I arrived in London, I received two passport stamps. Woohoo!

Although arrival was scheduled at 12:38PM, there was a broken train in front of us. Thus, we didn't reach London until 3:30PM! We received a return ticket as a consolation - too bad I already bought my non-refundable one in advance!

Tip: A one-way ticket in the tube is 4pounds! However, a one day pass is only 5.30pounds!

After checking into St. Christopher's Hostel (note ISIC card gets you a 10% discount here), I headed off to the Southbank Center for my night of concerts! In the front room of Elizabeth Foyer Hall, was the Diabel Cissokho Trio. Utilizing traditional African sounds with jazz and Afro-beat, the music was phenomenal! More please?

The Diabel Cissokho Trio!

Since there was a break, I headed outside to discover that London is beautiful at night!

The Golden Jubilee Bridge

The Cologne Christmas markets were beautiful as well! I bought some delicious cheesy bratwurst and then walked on the Golden Jubilee Bridge that provided a gorgeous skyline view! Big Ben and the Golden Eye were the main attractions along with everything else by the River Thames!

The River Thames, Big Ben, and London's Golden Eye

I then headed off to a benefit concert that helped the Magic Bus (which provides sports in slums to promote the self-confidence of children) and AMC (which promotes Asian artists throughout the world). At times, it was easy for one to get lost in the music.

Note: Make sure to read which elevator one should take while in the Royal Festival Hall. Each color and floor corresponds differently.

At the hostel, I met with Andres and Leslie Mao. We had dinner at a local pizzeria, Penne al Pollo, and then Andres and I headed off to the West End in Central London. We both took the London bus for the first time which provided us with a great view of London by night. While on our makeshift "tour", we passed by the Royal Courts of Justice and the St. Regents Cathedral. To a faulty website description, Trafalger Square does NOT resemble Times Square. Haha, it's just more of a square.

Christmastime in the city!

We then headed off to Picadilly Circus. With its Christmas lights, flashing neon signs, expensive and trendy stores, and upscale clubs, Picadilly Circus was the one that resembled Times Square.

The night ended with a visit into Ain't Nothin But Blues, a local blues bar. The live band was fantastic and everybody inside was dancing and having a good time. Good stuff!

On the walk home, we toured Liecester Square, another great location for food, pubs, and clubs. After taking numerous pictures of the snowmen decorations in the sky, I bought a gingerbread man/snowman cookie. After a fantastic day, could London perhaps rank up next to New York City and Paris? Perhaps!

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Can I Have Some Mustard Please? Dijon-style!

I had a 5:45AM wake up call as it would take 1-1.5 hours to get to Paris Montparnasse.

Note: There's a Versailles express train that drops you off to Paris Montparnasse in twenty minutes. Wish I would have known that sooner!

Arrival to Dijon is like traveling back in time. The Romanesque architecture provides an obvious old stylistic look and the city itself provides quite a small-town feel.

Jardin D'Arcy

Unfortunately, to my disappointment, the Mustard Museum was closed! C'est terrible!

I started the day at Jardin D'Arcy where I took pictures with the famous Pompons Polar Bear! The same sculpture can be seen at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris. The city's architecture and quaintness really makes a person want to walk. Next stop was to grab a quick chicken kebab at Darcy Kebab.

Pompons Polar Bear of Jardin D'Arcy

The St. Benigne Church has a fantastic crypt exhibit downstairs with the sarcophagus of St. Benigne. A Roman Catholic cathedral, it originated as the church of Abbey of St. Benignus.

Underground at the St. Benigne Church

Apparently, A walk down Place François Rude will lead you to a block full of hairstylists! At Hypnotyk, there was a student haircut special for 18euros. They asked if I really wanted a haircut as they didn't speak English, but I didn't care - I just responded "Oui, c'est bonne!"

I had the full shampoo, cut, and brush. In French, she spoke to me about food, Obama, why I'm in France, etc. She even told her non-snail eating daughter, "See, even an American likes escargot!" Haha. The haircut was actually quite amazing and it looked very European with the hairspray.

As Monoprix was on the same street, I went to do a bit of grocery shopping! The H&M was very edgy and West Coast comparative to other H&Ms in the world. Je t'aime!It was too easy to feel like a local in Dijon.

The Musee des Beaux-Arts was free and fantastic. As it's quite small, it provides a legit stopping. There are actually quite a bit of landmarks in the city as I strolled by St. Michel and St. Chappelle.
Hébé et l'aigle de Jupiter

While at Place Wilson, a woman approached me inquiring about my life as I did not look like a local! We spoke (en Francais) about why I was in France, what I thought about Dijon, good things to see in Dijon, etc. AND she stated that I spoke French well! I watched her leave and apparently, she had her husband pull over specifically so she could speak to me. Celebrity status!

I walked Cours Du Gal De Gaulle like she suggested and came across Parc de la Colombière. The French royal park was very pretty with it's 6,000 grandiose trees and crisscrossing alleys.

In the park, a young boy asked me for the time and then if I were an American. The next words from him were then specifically about my hometown! Considering that he had never been and only had three relatives in New York, I was quite surprised. I blame it on American reality television shows.

The Temple of Love in Parc de la Colombière

Note: Don't go to the Temple of Love by yourself! Even if you are in a relationship, make sure to approach the gazeebo with somebody!

The Notre Dame was very different from the ones I've seen. It seemed like the inside had switched out! The Gothic church features gargoyles and slender towers topped off by the Jacquemart Clock.

Dijon's Notre Dame

Of course, no trip would have been complete without a protest!

I sat and waited for this apparent "free" tram, but it never came. Thus, I went to Moutarde Maille to buy some mustard! They actually allow one to sample various mustards.

Mustards galore at Moutarde Maille

Tip: Be weary of which mustards you taste! The Du vin blanc made me tear up!

I walked to Place République and used the ATM at BNP (yes, another errand). However, I unfortunately learned the lesson that one should NOT leave money in the machine as it will eat it back up after some time! Grr.

The day trip only cost me 6euros (well maybe 12euros because I cancelled on another trip). Yay for the Eurorail pass! And yay for being a "local" and for my new haircut!

Sunday 16 November 2008

Goodbye, Bordeaux!

I knocked on the roomate's door to go to the morning markets. The voice of a female was heard speaking to him (the other roommate, Laura!) Duhn, duhn, duhn!

We walked to Le Marche des Capucins, a large flower and fruit market. I was pleasantly happy as I was able to buy a 2euro umbrella!

Bordeaux -a quaint little city

Leslie and I then completed the morning walking up and down the quay taking pictures and visiting the City Hall. At the house, we said goodbye to the CSurfing hosts and I finally got to meet the final roommate: the chef!

No worries, home is close by!

Leslie took off to Charles de Gaulle and I headed back home to Jouy-en-Josas. Good times!

Saturday 15 November 2008

Are We On the Travel Channel? Wine Tasting Time!

We were excited as today would be our wine tasting adventure! After a late morning wake up, we ran to the train station just in time; however, our train was not listed on the screen! Just as luck would have it, there was a strike! We were provided with another option to get to Bergerac - thus, we headed off to the station of Foy-la-Grande.

I called our wine connoisseur, Caroline Freely, and she stated that it was no problem and advised us to check the return ticket. We tried to book a return, but the attendant stated that she could not know the time from St. Gardonne to Bordeaux because of the strike. Thus, we went back in line and waited for another attendant. This one provided us with the correct information!

When we arrived at the train station, it felt like déjà vu Rive de Gier - we were stranded in the middle of nowhere! Out front, I recognized Caroline's picture from her wine website, We jumped in her car and it immediately felt like we were in a television show!

As we drove, she explained the various vineyards that we passed along the way. We were in Bergerac, just outside of Bordeaux, yet the region still made Bordeaux-style wines. Her home was adorable as cute chickens and children ran all around!

Caroline Freely's winery

The wine workshop began with a bit of Bergerac's history and then into the 400+ appellations of wine. Soon, the wine tasting began!

We started off with two white wines: Semillon 2007 and Semillon, AC Bergerac Sec, 2006. I actually preferred the 2006 as it was less sweet and lighter on the tongue. We then went into the red wines, where we tried Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, both 2006. However, my favorite had to be the sweet dessert wine! Chateau Haut Garrigue AC Saussignac, 2006 tasted the best (perhaps coupled by the fact that it came along with dessert!)

Tasting some Merlot

For lunch, Caroline provided tomato salad, bread, and several cheeses! It was also my first experience tasting foie gras - so delicious! Foie gras is a delicacy in French cuisine and must be tried if one is abroad. The tarts for dessert tasted so delectable with the Saussignac white wine that I had to buy some!

The aftermath of our cheese and wine destruction

As we enjoyed lunch, two older individuals came by to check out Caroline's wine. When they found out we were American, the first words out of their mouths were "You have a black president now!" Ahaha.

While touring the vineyard, one easily feels like he or she is in The Travel Channel! As we walked between the vines of the 30-acre vineyard, Caroline provided us with great information..."These vines are about sixty years old. You can tell by the size of the stem. Now back in the 18th century, the St. Emelion Castle over there served as a lookout point..." Yes, Travel Channel indeed!

The beautiful wine fields of Bergerac

Prices of land for wineries:
  • 2.2 hectre in Saussignac = $15,000
  • 2.2 hectre in Bordeaux = $200,000
  • 2.2 hectre in Champagne = $1,000,000!
Caroline's gorgeous porch view...sigh...

We had a mini-photoshoot in the vineyard and then it was pretty much time to go (boo, la grave!) We jumped back in Caroline's car and headed to St. Gardonne train station. Later on, she let me know by e-mail that she actually waited at the train station in case the strike affected our train. So sweet!

Mrs. Caroline Freely herself!

Leslie and I felt so exhausted after our adventure that we both fell asleep back to Bordeaux St. Jean! After we were rested though, we soon headed off to Dibiterie for live music. It was small, but cute and fun! Leslie was even lucky enough to catch a drumstick!

Looking back, I am glad that the big wine tours in Bordeaux were sold out! Caroline Freely's private wine workshop was actually found on the third page of Google. Many vineyards in bigger regions like Medoc are run by investors with much wealth, so they pay people to work for them. However, this wine tour was provided by a private family, who spent their whole lives saving up for their dream of owning a winery! Thus, we got to experience their passion with them!

The bus bench that ended the night and speaks the truth! Fitting!

Friday 14 November 2008

CouchSurfing in Bordeaux

After dancing in Paris at La Locomotive (located next to the M0ulin Rouge), Leslie Donnelly and I headed off to Bordeaux!

The tram in Bordeaux is quite simple as there are only three main lines. Being a much less expensive city that others in comparison, ten rides were only 6.10euros.

We went straight to Tour Pey Berland, which resembled the Duomo in Milan with its towers and columns. The bell tower was constructed in 1440 and was named after the Archbishop of Bordeaux, Pey Berland.

Tour Pey Berland

Tower Pey-Berland sits near; however, it was closed for some unknown reason. Thus, we went to Saint-Michel Basilica. The Gothic church measures over 350 feet high and a view from the top provides magnificent views of the city.

Tower Pey-Berland at night

We bought some chocolate chaud (hot chocolate) at a local shop - it was so small that it didn't even have a name! Afterwards, we headed off to meet our CouchSurfing host, Clothilde Vg! The very first thing the French girl said to us was, "We're going to cook dinner for you!" Success!

The house was tres grande! There were four bedrooms and a pull-out couch for Leslie and me. We had some wonderful chicken with Clothilde, her boyfriend, and two of the roommates. We definitely got to practice our Francais as the only one that spoke English was Clothilde!

The life of a CouchSurfer!

That night, Leslie and I went down Rue Ste. Catherine, the longest pedestrian street in France. We made our way to Le Cafe Brun, which was a sweet place to relax with good music. We walked around the city a bit and met back up with Clothilde and her friends at a local apartment kickback. Everyone there was definitely a hippie - love it!

We spent the rest of the night speaking "Franglais" with two local French boys. They had quite a time speaking English with us and it was a good time had by all!

Monday 10 November 2008

Art and Tapas!

7:30AM - Adam wakes me up with a phone call because the hostel is not yet ready to check him in.

Adam: I'm at the hostel, can I crash with you?
Me: Yeah, are you in Madrid?
Adam: Yes, I'm in the patio at the hostel.
Me: Where are you? In the patio?
Adam: In the patio.
Me: That's so convenient. I'll come get you.

Haha, I was so tired!

About an hour and a half later, Jessica and I headed off to the Botanical Gardens. The garden actually began as the King's Fernando VI botanical collection in the eighteenth century. It was nice to see, but would have been much better in the summer. I could only imagine the amount of flowers that would have bloomed.

Real Jardin Botanico

I had to go back to the Crystal Palace as it would now be opened! One could actually walk inside on top of the water on the marble's crevices. This really allowed a person to experience the art as they were apart of it!

The Crystal Palace. One could be apart of the art as people could walk between the crevices full of water!

View of Retiro Park from the Crystal Palace!

The Valasquez Monument inside Parque Retiro was gorgeous! It is dedicated to Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, the same architect that designed the Crystal Palace and several other buildings in Madrid. The monument had fountains, vines, and peacocks all over! To complement the mood, even a lone saxophonist played next door.

Just one part of The Valasquez Monument

A local church was nearby and as I adored the architecture, I decided to stumble on in. The priest put a piece of styrofoam into everyone's mouths as a sign of cleansing. Way to be blessed! ?

The best attraction besides the Crystal Palace would have to be the Royal Palace. Albeit the fact that it is the official residence of the King of Spain, only grand galas are held there. As the largest palace in Western Europe, the ceilings had such beautiful intricate detail as well as grandiose chandeliers.
The Royal Palace

Tip: If the line seems long, try going to the line on the farthest right side! I had zero wait while the other lines were out the door!

We all met back at the Cat's Hostel for the Tapas Tour. The tour took us to have sangria and tapas at a handful of local bars and restaurants. We ended up meeting Andrew from San Clemente and Kevin from Nebraska - small world! Another individual at meat for the first time as well! We inquired if he would become a carnivore from now on to which he responded that he was not sure. Oh, goodness.

Tapas Tour crew!

Afterward, we went to Chocolateria San Gines, a local restaurant that serves chocolate covered churros - delicious! We joined another protest; this one was to protect government workers' benefits. Good stuff! I also completed my mission of finding the famous "Bear and Tree" statue! Lying in Puerta del Sol, the 20ton statue shows a bear reaching for strawberries.

El Oso y El Madrono a.k.a. The Bear and The Tree! It was a difficult climb.

The group went off to Reina Sofia where there were great works by Picasso and Dahli. The first portion features Spanish artists from the late 19th century to the Second World War and the second features artistic trends from the 1940s - 1980s. As it focuses more on contemporary and modern artwork, it was much more to my liking!

We went to Matador for more tapas and played good ole' American games such as Celebrity ABC (say a celebrity name that starts with "a", now "b", etc.). Our continuation of the Tapas Tour continued onto Tapas de la Monde where we finally had enough sangria! The end of the night came as we headed back to the hostel for our 5:30AM wake up call!

Sunday 9 November 2008

Morning, Madrid!

The Airbus is the cheapest way to get to BCN airport, especially with our discount for having the Barcelona Card! The stop at Madrid's airport was an adventure in itself as we ran into Andrea Wheaton, another exchange student, and we spent twenty minutes looking for Jessica's credit card. Thankfully, she found it and didn't leave in it Barcelona!

We bought two days worth of travel as it was only 8euros. After checking into Cat's Hostel, we took the metro to Parque del Retiro. With its 350 acres, the park offers sculptures to monuments to a gorgeous lake. On this beautiful Sunday afternoon, the locals came out performing and dancing! It was quite relaxing and highly rivals Central Park of New York.

Relaxing on the Monument of Alfonso XII

One of the highlights was rowboating on the lake! We struggled a bit (okay, alot) to get the boat out, but after a few, we were pros!

Rowboating adventure on Estanque del Retiro!

The attraction that I needed to see in the park was the Palacio de Cristal. The glass pavillion was built in 1887 and was inspired by the Crystal Palace of London. It portrayed a gorgeous exhibition from Rafina Sofia.

The Crystal Palace - my favorite attraction in Madrid!

Museo del Prado was free on Sundays from 5PM-8PM, so off we went! The sculptures about Aphrodite and the exhibit by Valesque were amoungst the best works. The famous painting "Plaza del Sol Dinner" was featured as well.

That night, we took a siesta before planning to wake up for the pub crawl at 12:30AM (which if you remember, is early to go out in Spain!) Unfortunately, as we were exhausted from the night before, we completely slept through the alarm! It was very much needed sleep though!

Saturday 8 November 2008

Viva Barca!

I woke the others up at 9:30AM to grab breakfast, but everyone was so sleepy! While they got ready, I strolled down Las Ramblas to the flea market. To my surprise, the merchants sold a variety of "goods" from fish to rabbits! The floral market and the H&M were fantastic as well!

La Familia Sagrada, Gaudi's most famous work, is a must see for anybody in Barcelona. Construction began in 1882, but is not expected to be finished until 2026. The privately-funded Roman Catholic church sits with intricate detail and draws thousands each year. La Padrera and Casa Batllo are more aesthetically pleasing though as they are not under complete construction (perhaps the beauty of La Familia Sagrada!).

Gaudi's most-detailed and famous work, La Sagrada Familia

I then headed off to the Caixa Forum. With its modern space containing several rotating exhibits, locals find this art gallery popular while tourists never know about it! Hence, it is quite a treasure for a traveler!

As it was a sunny and clear afternoon, the cable car ride up Montjuiic was beautiful! The shallow hill allows a panaromic view of the city along with a 17th century castle atop. Although a scary and sketchy ride up, it was definitely a sight to remember.

Gorgeous view from Montjuiic

The hike to Parc Guell is long, but not too steep (as escalators will help if you go the back way! Here, one can walk around the enormous garden complex and find Gaudi's many artworks dating back to the early 1900s. It was nice as tourists and locals would all congregate together to enjoy the park!

The entrance of Parc Guell

Next step in this busy day was to pick up the FC Barca tickets! It was only 18euros for the cheapest seats - good deal! Unfortunately, the metro stop was on the complete opposite side of the stadium (Camp Nou), so it took me a good twenty minutes just to walk around the entire stadium! It did provide a nice little tour of the city though.

Walking back to the hostel, one could easily find all the Barca fans celebrating in and out of their cars while blasting music and cheering down the streets. So much pride!

We then headed off to Placa Reial Square for a flamenco show at Los Tarantos! It was worth the trip as the thirty minute show was only 5euros. For some odd reason, the only shoes I packed were my leather boots, so I borrowed Pauline's ballet flats. Unfortunately, they were too big, but we all had a time making them fit with tissue paper!

Flamenco show time!

Tip: If you go to Barcelona and need a hostel, stay in Kabul! It's a great, loud, and fun hostel located right in the square of Placa Reial, where there are great restaurants and nightly flamenco shows next door. It's less than a minute walking to Las Ramblas - great location!

Adam and Pauline left to catch their bus to San Sebastian while Jess and I took off to the futbol game. Luckily, our seats were right behind the keeper and only three minutes into the match, Barca scored! The Belgium boys we met at the hostel texted us and we met up with them at the end of the game.

Viva Barca! Cheering on Messi and Barcelona at Camp Nou

On the way to Port Olimpic, we found an amazing, giant lobster statue with a smiley face drawn on it! Thus, I made the driver pull over so I could take a picture. Looking at it, the lobster could possibly be my favorite attraction in Barcelona!

We started off at the Australian Bar and danced the night away going in and out of the sixteen clubs and bars by the harbor. Arriving back at the hostel at 7:30AM, I took a thirty minute nap before waking up to catch our flight to Madrid.

VIVA BARCA! I'm tired!