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A Tale of 3 Cities

Part 1

sunny

Well, long time no see! Apologies for posting this so late: this past week we had Monday thru Wednesday off from school, so we decided to take our weekly travel a tad further from base camp. We departed from Metz on Friday afternoon and rolled back into town on Wednesday evening. This time, our curiosity brought us to visit the homeland of my mustachioed, turtle-throwing, plumbing cousin: Mario! Like a pinball in a machine, we bounced around Northern Italy from Cinque Terre, to Florence, and finally to Venice. Our crew of seven made for an interesting cast. There were the von Matterhorn Brothers, Lorenzo and Jake, who were ready to do just about anything if you’d ask them to do it. Then there was Rosalind, who was always on top of things and kept everyone together. Coming up next was Smalls, who was the right-hand man of the von Matterhorns and whom hated hiking. Batting cleanup was the dynamic duo of Glenn and Maggie: you never knew what would happen next with them around. Before I delve in, I should tell you that this will be a 3-parter. With six days of travel to cover, I’d prefer not to write one giant essay. Instead, I’ll release two parts and leave the third as a cliff-hanger to begin again next season (just kidding)! There’s a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started, shall we?

This blog wouldn’t be complete without a school update, however! In short, everything is still going well. Right before I left, I took a thermo quiz that I felt fairly confident about as I walked out. Thermo quizzes are ones where you end up working the entire fifty minutes given. Even as he called time, my pencil was still streaking across the page trying to double and triple-check my work. I should find out the grade next week, so hopefully it will go well for me.

Everyone left early on Friday afternoon to get into Paris, but I had a late class, so I ended up going alone and meeting them there. After class got out on Friday, I sat around in nervous anticipation for the weekend to come. I had two hours to kill, so I spent the time watching Netflix and cleaning out my fridge. I got so caught up in “How I Met Your Mother” that I almost missed my bus to the train station! I had to run like a madman across campus to make it to the bus stop in time, which got me to the station with ten minutes to spare. The train ride was short and quiet, with no breakdowns or cancellations to speak of. I’m beginning to learn that French trains are notorious for the frequency with which they have delays or are cancelled due to “strikes”. When I got into Paris, different groups were scattered throughout the city, so I decided to join Maggie and Rosalind down at the Eiffel Tower. It was about 8pm when I got into Paris, so I was able to get to the Tower just in time to see the sun’s rays scattering through its patchwork of metal, signifying the end of another day.

Around 9pm, the von Matterhorns, Smalls, and Glenn came rolling up to join us on the packed green pasture that the Tower presides over. Talking and taking it all in, we sat there and enjoyed the tranquility of the warm evening until 11:30pm. This was my first time with this group, so I spent some time getting to know a bit about each of them. Our accommodations for the evening would be in Glenn’s apartment, which was really more of a studio meant for one or two people at a max. Taking the metro to the flat, we rolled up around midnight and had to climb a mountain of stairs that eventually deposited us at our room for the night. If you’ve been reading closely, you’ll notice that there are seven of us in the group. With only one bed, four people had to squeeze onto its tiny frame. Meanwhile, two of us (myself included) slept on the floor and one slept curled up in a ball on the terrace outside. By the time any of us could actually fall asleep, it was almost 1am.

Sleep was intermittent and hard to reach with the cold drafts that kept floating in through the window (not to mention it was a hardwood floor!). However, we had to be up at 4:30am to make it to our airport shuttle, so it’s not like we would get much out of sleeping for three hours anyways. At precisely 4:30, the blaring alarms set by Rosalind and Smalls jolted us out of our stupor and signaled the beginning of the long day of travel we had ahead of us. Begrudgingly, we packed up our belongings and hit the road. Shuffling like a pack of zombies, we trudged the mile to the airport shuttle and got there in time to collapse in a heap at the busses’ entrance. By 5:30, we were seated in semi-comfortable chairs and on our way to Beauvais Airport, a regional airport North of Paris that specializes in budget flights for cheap people like us.

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We arrived at Beauvais by 7am, which gave us plenty of time to hang around the airport until our 8:35am flight. There wasn’t a lot to see, however. In its entirety, it wasn’t much more than a security checkpoint, a few shops selling food, and two gates for airplanes. In our sleep-deprived state, none of us did much talking. Instead, we snagged a few empty seats and sat there with glazed-over expressions and arms wrapped around our bags. I was incredibly thankful when the airplane showed up, because it meant one step closer to our destination for the day: Cinque Terre. I gave up on attempting to sleep during the flight, which seemed determined to make you as uncomfortable as possible: My legs were perpetually jammed into the seat in front me of thanks to the non-existent legroom, attendants wouldn’t let you close the shades, and they would come down the aisle constantly trying to sell you useless magazine subscriptions. Despite these drawbacks, I made a new friend on the flight! The girl next to me had NASA stickers on her laptop. Being the ultimate space nerd, I started chatting with her and found out that she was from Colombia and working on her masters in mechanical engineering in France. More so, she had spent some time at JPL and is even interested in being an astronaut herself! She is a certified scuba diver and also intends on getting her pilot’s license. The last half hour of the ride flew by after that (haha, get it?).

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After touching down, everyone on board was ecstatic to get out and stretch their legs. I’ve become a master at staying in one position for long periods of time with all this traveling, but even I need a break from it. Our plane deposited us at an airport an hour outside Milan, which required us to take yet another bus to get to the central train station. One more agonizing hour of remaining motionless and we would finally be in Milan! As the bus made its way to the city center, we passed through crowded streets packed with vendors. It made for an eclectic collection of open-air shops that created a maze to navigate. By the time we got off at the train station, we were feeling the pangs of hunger beginning to set in. Most of us hadn’t eaten since yesterday evening.

With only an hour to find a place to eat, we wasted a lot of time standing around in indecision. Finally, as if a sign from the Heavens, the Golden Arches descended down upon us and guided us to our decision. I’ll admit, I’m ashamed to have succumbed to the McDonald’s bug, but it tasted incredible after eating nothing but a croissant in the past 12 hours. After refueling our tanks, we got ready to begin the final part of our journey. The train from Milan would take us to Pisa, where we would hop on another train to get to Monterosso. As we made our way to Pisa, we came very close to missing our connecting train. Although we started out behind schedule, our conductor did a good job of getting us in on time. When we transferred at Pisa, we had a whole five minutes to find our train! Through the hot, sticky, humidity, we stumbled onto our train to Monterosso, which would mark the end of our long travel.

Now, a quick side note about Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre, which is Italian for “Five Villages”, is a UNESCO world heritage site that is comprised of five unique towns perched on cliffs overlooking the Ligurian Sea. The northernmost village is Monterosso, where we would be coming into. In between each village are narrow trails cut through the rock. In the late 1800’s, through a marvelous feat of engineering, they were able to connect the five villages by train. This region is known for its white wine, fishing, lemons, rugged beaches, and breathtaking views. As I mentioned, each village has a unique personality that appeals to different people. The villages, as colorful as a box of crayons, are so small that you can walk through their entirety in half an hour. However, the amazing part is how the houses cling to the cliffside on ledges that are mind-bogglingly small. This region is best for more able travelers, ones who don’t mind getting a good hike in. The majority of your day will be spent getting a calf workout as you work your way up hill after hill. However, what some might deem “drawbacks”, were the exact reasons why we would be going to Cinque Terre.

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On the way to Monterosso, we caught glimpses of the sea and the beaches that lay in wait. The last half hour before we arrived was spent in excited anticipation to finally get out of our sedentary positions. When the doors clanged open, we burst through the train station and down onto the beaches below. What greeted us was something straight out of a movie. A picturesque walkway formed a protective semi-circle around shimmering blue-green water. The beaches, filled to the brim with people, contained pure, white sand. Moving along the walkway, we made our way over to get our reward from the day’s long adventure: a hefty scoop of gelato. As we scarfed the cool treat down, we spent some time walking through Monterosso and over to a quieter beach. Within twenty minutes, we had stripped down to our bathing suits and were wading into the refreshing water. There were a series of rocks perched on a sandbar not far from shore, so Jake, Lorenzo, Maggie, and Glenn went to check them out and go cliff diving. Meanwhile, Smalls stayed behind to watch our stuff. After forty-five minutes, we met back up and walked through the miniature town. There were as many tourist shops as there were restaurants (and I even found one named after me!). We had some time to look around before we began the hike to Vernazza, which we expected to take us an hour and a half. Although only three kilometers long, the path wound its way up and down the steep cliffside. It got so tough that Maggie and Glenn almost turned back. However, we convinced them to keep going and were able to stick together. Every ten feet we would have to stop and take pictures, because the view was out of this world. The narrow ledge we followed plunged down to meet up with the sea, which crashed against the rocks below like thunderclaps. If there was one thing we were certainly wary of, it was making sure our footing was solid. Along the way, we passed by various groups of travelers and swapped stories with them. We met exchange students from China, couples from Australia, and even other GT students!

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When Vernazza came into view, it did so dramatically. Walking around the edge of the cliff, it began to appear below us as if it were rising up out of the sea. With it in sight, we picked up our pace: our footsteps a bit quicker. We were ready to get some real dinner, and we were eager to try the fresh seafood. Making our way down the steep staircase, we emerged onto the main street of Vernazza and regrouped before a water fountain. At this point, our criteria for restaurants was if the “Open” sign was still hanging in the window. The restaurant adjacent to the water fountain ended up being our pick for the night. Serving traditional food that highlighted the region, it was exactly what we wanted. We chowed down on seafood platters mixed in with bowls of spaghetti and washed it all down with glass after glass of cold water. With full stomachs and the evening setting in, we made our way down to the crescent-shaped harbor that defines Vernazza. Boats of people came and went as we watched the sun go down behind the cliffs that loomed over us. We spent a half hour exploring the streets and hidden coves of the town before making our way back to the train stop that is nestled in the center. Although I said that we were done with travelling, I actually lied. We would have a short, twenty-minute ride over to our Airbnb for the evening, which was located in a town called La Spezia.

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Getting in at 9:45pm, we split off from Maggie and Glenn, who had their own place for the night. Lucky for us, our hosts were nice enough to meet us at the train station. They gave us a ride from the station to their apartment, which normally would have been a forty-minute walk. As if that wasn’t enough, when we walked into the place that would be ours for the night, our draws dropped: it was a spacious apartment with three bedrooms complete with air conditioning, a fully-stocked kitchen, and even a terrace! It felt like a palace compared to the hardwood floor and cramped quarters from the night before. After some difficulty getting the hot water working, we spent the rest of the evening showering off the layer of grime and relaxing. Within minutes of laying down, I was fast asleep. Getting this at the end of the day was an amazing surprise after nearly sixteen hours of travel. It also made us sad that we would only get the chance to spend one night here in this mini-oasis.

The next morning, I helped myself to the croissants our host had got for us. Slathering the baked bun in Nutella, it was a delicious combination of chocolate and bread that made for a great start. While the others slept in, Rosalind and I went out for a walk through La Spezia to see what we could find. We went down along the waterfront and then through the old town, completing a two-mile loop that got our legs warmed up for the day. They were still pretty sore from the steep inclines that we made our way up yesterday. Around us, shops began to open their curtains and begin their day as well. We found a tasty, little, bakery with apple desserts that we munched on as we headed back to the apartment. At 10:00am, we rolled up to the train station and met up with Glenn and Maggie, whose host had given them a ride there. They had an equally awesome experience with their stay: their host keeping them up late with stories of fishing expeditions.

We were sad to leave Cinque Terre so soon, but Florence was next on the agenda. The beauty of the land around us and the friendliness of the locals made a great first impression. If I could go back and do it all again, I would stay in Cinque Terre longer. However, we were moving on to a new city and a new day! Who knew what would wait in store for us at the next stop? I guess you’ll have to wait and see what went on in Florence……

Posted by oklempay 05:46 Archived in Italy Tagged paris palace italy cinque_terre milan monterosso vernazza matterhorn pasta genoa airbnb la_spezia Comments (0)

The Big Kahuna

sunny

Great Scott! It’s already been two weeks in France and it still feels as if I just got here. It’s like the remote control of life seems to be stuck in fast-forward and events flash by one by one (this is getting heavy, Doc). On a different note, school is continuing to go well! Thermo is trying to keep us on our toes with pop quizzes and numerous assignments that come back to bite you for deciding to take a 4-credit hour class during what many would consider a “vacation semester”. My deformable bodies professor continues to rock with his crowd-pleasing personality. He’s incredibly personable and genuinely makes an effort to learn a bit about each student. Suffice to say, he’s already up there among my favorite teachers I’ve had at Tech. I feel a special connection to him due to his past at West Point and time in the Army Corps of Engineers. Statistics is starting to improve, but I’m waiting to see how it shakes out. The runt of the litter is Materials Science. Being a survey course, the class flies through a multitude of topics and expects you to pick up most of it very quickly. Chemistry has never been my strong suit, so this is the class I’m most worried about. Next Wednesday is our first test, so hopefully I won’t need to order my coffin now (they go pretty fast as finals season approaches). Enough with the classwork, though, on to the fun stuff!

Friday night I went out into Metz and enjoyed the city. We ended up eating at what I would consider to be a more upscale restaurant. This, of course, meant that the golden ratio (the ratio between cost to portion size) would be pretty bad. However, the chicken breast I ordered was mouthwateringly delicious and the carrot puree and mushroom sauce were highly reminiscent of something from the Tailor and the Cook (a classy restaurant at home). I spent the evening getting to know some new people from the program and taking in the scenery of the city. After dinner, we made our way down to the water and enjoyed the evening with ice cream in hand. Geese floated along and terrorized the local ducks (jerks). I got back around 10pm and began to prepare for our trip the following day.

I’m glad I got plenty of sleep, because this weekend was the big kahuna! After seeing Paris in just about a million different films, I had always wanted a chance to visit the iconic city. Our plan of action this time was to hit up the Bastille and work our way left. Following this philosophy, it would lead us in a chain of sights from Notre Dame to the Arc de Triumphe. Leaving at 8am once again, the train ride to Paris was short and uneventful. It was only an hour and a half hop over by train, which gave me just enough time to complete one homework problem before arriving at the train station. We made our way down to the Metro and bought our day pass tickets. Then, for whatever reason, I was put in charge of the group and figuring out where to go…. BAD DECISION. The first train we hopped on travelled in the opposite direction from the way we wanted! Luckily, I realized the mistake after one stop and we made a quick course correction.

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When we got to the Bastille, I stepped out of the station and looked around in confusion. Whenever I had seen pictures of the Bastille, it had been of a giant, stone fort that loomed hundreds of feet in the air. What stood before us now was a pretty wimpy column. Apparently, I had dozed off during the part of history class where the Bastille was burned down by the French people. After snapping some disappointing pictures, we made our way down to the Seine. The dirty, brown water surged by and gave off a peculiar smell. The river was not as wide as I had expected, but we found a nice pathway to walk along it. Going on for some ways, we shuffled in the hot sun until we hit the first big stop: Notre Dame. Squatting on an island, it had massive stained glass decorating the outside of the building. We stopped short of our destination to grab a quick bite at a place that offered a 2-course meal for a reasonable price. I felt bad for the waitress who lured us in (we essentially lived up to every stereotype of an obnoxious tourist).

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After lunch, our group split and I headed on with my friend to check out Notre Dame. The line to get in moved at a fast pace and we were inside in no time. It seems as if each church I visit is trying to one up the previous one I’ve seen. They get bigger, grander, and take my breath away even more each time. The trend continued on with the real Notre Dame (not that faker in Strasbourg). I stopped at the statue of St. Theresa and lit a candle there for my aunt. Coming back out into the daylight, we had to take a few minutes to adjust to the drastic change in lighting. Then, we continued on our pilgrimage leftwards. We made our way over to the bridge which was home to thousands of locks of love. Well, it used to house thousands of these locks. So many were put on that it began to put stress on the bridge. They were all cut off, unfortunately, and replaced by rather ugly, plastic siding. Our crossing of the bridge brought us right into the Louvre, which means I can cross, “seeing the pyramids”, off of my bucket list. Before you ask if I saw the Mona Lisa, I will tell you straight up that I am not a fan of “high art”. With a super-packed day, I was not ready to wait in an hour-long line and shell out some serious dough for a picture that I’ve seen a hundred times over.

Continuing on from the Louvre, we walked through an expansive park lined with statues of Caesar and grand fountains. Eventually, our pilgrimage led us to the Champs-Elysees, one of the most famous streets in Paris. As if to mock us, our final destination (the Arc de Triumphe) sat at the very end of the Champs-Elysees and atop a steep hill. Folks, I have made some difficult treks in my life, but battling my way through crowds of tourists whilst in the heat and humidity of an 86 degree day and loaded down with everything for a weekend was up there among the top for difficulty. Our feet were already sore from the 6 miles of walking early, but our prize was so close now (and in plain sight!) that we could not give up now. We eventually made it up to the Arc and were confronted with one final challenge: it sat in the middle of a massive 8 lane traffic circle! The cars zipped around and tempted us to play frogger, but we did not rise to the occasion. Instead, we scratched our heads along with the other confused tourists and finally found the giant sign that read “ARC THIS WAY”. Thirty minutes later, we were standing triumphantly on top of the conquered landmark. For all of the trouble it had been to get there, the view was magnificent. You could see Paris in all directions. It was a definite highlight of the trip.

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Exhausted and battered by a day of trudging through the sweltering heat, we took the Metro to our Airbnb, which was situated in the southeast corner of Paris. After figuring out the correct building and dealing with a host who knew only a little English, we got some respite in a comfy bed and a room of our own. We took a much-needed rest and got prepared to head back out once more. This time, we would be heading for the Eiffel Tower. Every night, they have a light show on the Tower that makes it sparkle like a diamond. Getting there at 10pm, we found the park filling up quickly with other eager tourists and a fair share of locals. Gypsies weaved their way among the groups lounging on the ground selling beer, wine, and champagne. You had to be careful with them, because they would do anything to get some money from you. They weren’t afraid to touch, either. When we picked our ideal spot, we hunkered down with our stuff and got our cameras ready for some prime picture-taking. The show was not disappointing. The display was lit up like a giant, white Christmas tree and went on for several minutes. Despite my complete state of exhaustion, I’m glad we went back out to see the show. By the time we made our way back to the safety and comfort of our bed for the night, it was almost midnight and the metro was jam-packed. There was hardly room to stand, and the sweaty, smelly bodies did not make it any more pleasant. I collapsed into the bed when we got back and slept soundly for the next seven hours.

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The following day, we were out by 8am and on our way to the Tower again. This time, we wouldn’t settle for just looking at it: we would be scaling its steps! The line in front of the Tower wasn’t bad, until we realized that it was just for the metal detectors. Then, we had to wait in line for tickets to climb the stairs. After that, we had to wait in line on the stairs themselves (see a pattern here?). All told, the view was most excellent from the galleries. The Tower, although much taller than the Arc, did not seem to give as good a scene as the Arc did. I’m not sure what it was about it, but I seemed to prefer being on top of the Arc to the Tower. On the way back down, I chatted it up with some Russian tourists from Moscow (see, my Russian is so coming in handy!).

At this point it was just about lunchtime, so I convinced my friend to let us eat from a grocery store. Grocery stores prove the existence of Heaven on Earth, because I was able to pick up lunch and dinner for under 9 euros! With my stomach full, I was in a much better mood as we headed to Versailles. The train alone was much nicer than any other Metro train I had ridden, as if the palace’s royal influence extended to the railway that led to it. As we rounded the corner of the boulevard that led to the palace, we both had a moment of jaw-dropping shock. When Versailles is talked about as big, that word doesn’t sum it up well. Versailles is BIG. Scratch that, it is HUGE. Its golden (literally gold) gate gleamed in the sun and rounded its exterior. Waiting in the security line, we were given a mini sideshow as the cops pulled up and scared off the gypsies that were pestering us poor tourists incessantly.

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Moving inside the gate, we worked our way around to the back, where the gardens were. I’m a fan of the Botanical Gardens, but this was something from another world. The gardens stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction and were so large that it made you feel like you were Alice and had just been shrunk down to Wonderland. Being almost 2,000 acres, the gardens were dotted with fountains, statues, baths, and intricate hedge structures that were unimaginable. We made our way through the center and then along the outer perimeter to the newest feature: Neptune’s Fountain. We were mostly guided by the music, as the fountains would go off every couple of minutes and lead you to somewhere new. Golf carts zoomed among the hedges, as some lucky tourists had been patient (and rich enough) to wait for the privilege of riding through the gardens in the luxury of a covered, 4-wheeled, motorized vehicle. We were supremely jealous of them as they rode around and we plodded along.

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By this time, we were hitting the point of near-exhaustion and barely made it back to the metro before collapsing into two empty seats. Lucky for us, it was a long, smooth ride to get back to the city center. Our last stop on this great journey was Sacre-Cour. Not so lucky for us, it was perched on the top of a freakin’ steep hill. I guess the Universe had to come back at me somehow. The streets leading up to Sacre Cour were bustling with tourists and we had to fight off gypsies selling cheap bracelets on the ascent to the top of the mountain. Was the view from the top worth it? Even in my deranged mental state back then, I would still have said yes. It was phenomenal. You could see for miles and we were blessed with a nice strong breeze that came in. We camped out around Sacre-Cour for an hour or so before making our way down to the train station and closer to the safety of Metz. Hopping on the 5:40pm train, we slept for most of the journey back. I was almost crawling by the time we reached our rooms.

Paris was an amazing city and we were able to see almost all of the big attractions in 2 days’ time! If you want to stay sane, however, I would recommend making it a 3-day trip for those interested. Or conversely, find a better way to get around than by walking everywhere with a 35 pound pack on your back. Once again, another successful weekend! I look forward to what the next week will bring!

Posted by oklempay 12:12 Archived in France Tagged tower paris metro louvre arc versailles champs gypsies sacre-cour Comments (0)

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