Feb 18, 2008

Paris - Part 1

I get packed for Paris and walked across campus with everyone to the Falmer station to catch a train up to London. We take the train to the Victoria Station to catch our charter bus out of town.
We get a goregous view of the sunset on our trip up and eventually unload at our destination. Now to find our bus. We find out the bus station is separate from the rail and tube station, and we walk the few blocks to get there. We find our gate, stand in line, and get our tickets.

And then we discover that there are two buses from the same company heading to Paris and that our group has been split in half because we didn't magically know to stand in the same line and request the same bus. I guess Brits are mind readers... Anyway, the buses are scheduled to leave at the same time so we figure that while it's less fun, it should be no big deal.

Adrienne, Christina and Trevor load on one bus, Kat, Sarika and I load on another. And then "no big deal" rears its ugly head. The other bus leaves at about five after 7PM, as it should, but we don't move. We sit, and sit, and sit.

National Express, the company we're traveling with, screwed up and sold one too many tickets... so we've got a guy on our bus with no seat, but he bought the ticket and he refuses to wait for another bus. I'm not even sure if waiting was an option presented to him, but don't get me started on the customer service. No one else is willing to give up their seat and wait either, so there's a big fight between one of the ticket agents and the guy with no seat.

We end up leaving an hour later with Mr. No Seat sitting in the aisle and complaining. Kat and I are already a little frustrated with the state of affairs, but we figure we'll catch up to the rest of our group and everything will be fine. An hour isn't that bad, right?

Until we notice we're going in circles.

More than half an hour after leaving the station we haven't made it out of London. Someone finally pipes up about our lack of progress and states that we're heading in the opposite direction of our destination. When he walks to the front of the bus to give the driver directions or at least figure out if she knows where she's going, we all discover that she doesn't speak English. Or French. Or Spanish. In fact, I don't even remember what language she did speak. Thankfully someone on the bus could translate and the driver turns around. We pass the Victoria bus station on our way out of London around 9PM.

For a little while Kat and I try to entertain ourselves and keep our spirits up by taking goofy pictures. We eventually give up and try to sleep. This was an overnight trip after all, and we were supposed to arrive in Paris around 6:30AM. Our extended trip had caused other passengers to become quite vocal about the poor planning and uninformed driver on our bus. They made sleep difficult.

The bus finally makes it to Dover at like 2AM if I recall correctly. We go through security where we have to present our passports to the scary looking guy in a uniform who climbed on our bus, and we drive through the gate. The bad news is that the chunnel is closed for the night, and there's one ferry leaving in about a half hour that we don't think we can get on. I don't know why... it wasn't clearly explained to us, that's just the way it was. The bus driver parks and calls the company office to try and sort this all out. Of course to our shock and amazement, there's no one at the company office to answer the phone.

Please tell me you picked up on the sarcasm. I mean really, I wasn't the least bit surprised when the phone rang off the hook in the wee small hours of the morning. Who gets paid to answer phones at 3AM? Only people who work for companies who care about customer service. This company is not one of them.

So we wait. Other riders are pissed beyond measure, and they decide to unload themselves and walk over to some building with vending machines. Kat and I are too tired to move and don't venture very far. Not long after people have left they are escorted back to the bus, food in hand, by some official. While standing in the doorway he announces to us all that should we choose to get off the bus again in the waiting area, the customs officers will be forced to conduct a thorough inspection of the bus, all our luggage, and our persons.

Obviously someone was very cranky.

We continue to wait. And wait. And sleep uncomfortably.

I'm asleep when the bus loads onto a ferry around 5AM. Someone wakes me up because we can't stay on the bus aboard the ship. I was not pleased. Kat and I climb a few flights of stairs and find some seating. All the big comfy seats are taken, including a few large red sofas that would make perfect beds. We end up in these tiny semi-circle red chairs that look like they could have only been found at IKEA. Kat sits across from me and we end up chatting with a fellow traveler.

Despite our conversation, I curl up into a ball in my tiny chair and fall asleep within a few minutes. Kat wakes me up as we arrive in Calais, and we load back onto the bus.

Things are pretty hazy for me from that point on as I drifted in and out of sleep. Eventually I spotted "Paris" on a road sign and decide it was time to perk up.

We pull into the bus station 5 hours late. Poor Trevor, Christina and Adrienne are still waiting in the station for us to arrive. The company couldn't tell them just how late we were, so they had been in Paris for 5 hours but hadn't seen more than the bus terminal.

Not wanting to lose any more time, we hop the metro to our hotel, check in, drop our bags, pay Sarika and head straight to the Louvre. Oh the Louvre.

Once again we take the metro and it brings us to the underground entry to the museum. Paris has a habit of putting malls and stores on top of and around metro exits. Before heading to the museum entrance we buy a two-for tickets for the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay at a discount at one of the nearby shops. This means skipping the line waiting to buy tickets and just waltzing right in. We take tourist pictures and go into the museum. Once inside we are greeted with large crowds and astounding architecture.
Thanks to the DaVinci Code hype, the first thing we all want to see is the Mona Lisa. We can't figure out the museum map to save our lives, so we follow the crowd and wander the halls. The museum is a piece of art in itself, with marble and columns everywhere. Now if only the stairwells made a little more sense. The number of photos I have from my first day in Paris is rather extensive, so they will be coming in rapid fire, perhaps with very little commentary.

First I give you a blurry Venus di Milo We wander some more. It's almost been an hour and we still can't figure out the maps. At some point in our search for the Mona Lisa we found ourselves on the second floor and I think I spent more time taking in the view through the windows.
And then suddenly, out of no where, we see a sign pointing us right to the Mona Lisa. We see the throng of people, the floating wall in the middle of a large hall, the two security guards, the stanchions with the velour rope, the no photography or video signs... and the smallest painting ever.

The Mona Lisa is small. Tiny really. All the prints you've ever seen of the Mona Lisa are at least four times the size of the original painting, and it is greatly overstated in it's film spot in the Da Vinci Code. It's the same with Dali's paintings, but that's another entry from another city.

The security guards protecting the painting are insane. They're snatching cameras out of peoples hands, or throwing up their arms to block shots before reaming people two inches from their face. People take their cell phones out and the guards are on them like white on rice. These guards are crazed and are being paid far too well as evidenced by the effort they're putting into their job.

I want a picture. In fact I'm not leaving the museum until I have one. Kat comes with me as we work our way through the crowd and I find a place to hide behind two people who are much taller than me. But I can't get a picture, I know I won't have enough time to focus and frame... I've got to be quick. I kick the camera into video mode and shoot literally a second of video before splitting.

The guards never even see me.

Kat thinks I'm crazy. Gutsy... but crazy.

I take a look at the video and realize that I forgot to zoom in before shooting the video clip. Not cool. So I decide to go back. This time Kat doesn't go with me. She's afraid I'll get caught.

Once again I make my way through the throng and I find two people taller than me. Turn on the camera, zoom in, put the camera up between the shoulders of the people in front of me and press record. A second of video later I'm gone again and walk up to Kat with a huge grin on my face. She tells me I'm the craziest person she knows. When I've got a camera in my hand, that's probably a fair assesment.

And here are the fruits of my labor... two screen caps of the video clips I took.

Impressive... not really. But the story behind them makes them that much better. I did what you weren't supposed to do. Two people were paid two stop me, and they both failed... twice. I should be a ninja.

Kat and I continue to wander around. We have some more time before meeting up with the rest of our group.

We find an unfinished room filled with items yet to be displayed.
This is by far one of my favorite shots from the inside of the musuem. The Louvre in the works...
We find Greek and Roman statues.
We find the Code of Hammurabi and several Egyptian artifacts. We find several other things that I just didn't photograph.

And eventually it is time to make our way to the front of the museum and wait for the rest of our group.
We leave the museum and enjoy the courtyard and Lovre Pyramid. At this point we decide to split up as some people are a bit tired and want to go back to the hotel and crash.
This will give you a better idea of the layout of the courtyard, and just how large it really is.
We begin to walk toward the Champ d'Elysse. We see the Place du Carrousel, the Jardin du Carrousel, and the Jardin des Tuileries.
We take a bit of a detour before heading down the Champ d'Elysse because I want to see the royal gardens. I mean they are famous after all. On our way to the gardens, I catch this. How quintessencially French. And a gold statue. Gold statues are always good.
We make our way to the Jardin du Palais Royal, and I take in the gardens, the famous fountains, the modern courtyard. Then we head back to the Champ d'Elysee and we walk until we reach the Arc de' Triomph. The walk takes some time, but the view and all the things to see along the way were worth the walk, at least to me.We make it to the Arc just as the sun is setting. I had always known that the Arc sat in the middle of a large roundabout, but I had no idea just how large it was. According to Wikipedia, the Arc stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, also known as the Place de l'Etoile. We take the underpass and come back up to street level right by the Arc.
I walk below the Arc and admire the detail. Also below the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider from WWI, pictured above. The Tomb includes an eternal flame.

A funny thing happened while I was in Paris... I ran into another person I knew. Like bumping into Carly in Rome, I'm walking around the Arc and I suddenly recognize someone's voice. I follow the sound and who do I find but Geoff. Maybe it really is a small world. And this time I at least got a picture....
How tan am I?!
We were supposed to be meeting a few members of our party, but it seems there was a miscommunication or something... and about 45 minutes later, we were still waiting. So I decided it was time to take some more video.

After that humerous little piece, I will live you with one more shot of the Arc. I wanted to make it back to climb the 284 steps and take in the panoramic view of Paris, but it didn't happen. Next time, I'm going. And trust me, there will be a next time. I miss this city.

Feb 17, 2008

Paris - The Prologue

Unlike the unplanned trip to Italy, Paris was one of those places I knew I wanted to go to. I'd heard good things and bad things about it, but hearing that the streets are dirty isn't really enough to keep you away from a place.

Sussex put together a day trip to Paris for 100 pounds, but I wanted to spend more time in the city than just one day. Plus most of that expense went towards the Eurostar express train from London to Paris. Needless to say, I didn't book the Sussex trip. I wanted a weekend, not just a day.

But I had to find someone to come with me. I remember sitting in my room trying to convince Kat and Trevor to not book the Sussex trip and to come with me instead. They wanted to make sure I was serious about going to Paris. Again, the PG version of the quote was "I'm going whether you idiots are coming or not." I originated the quote, Trevor borrowed it from me later while in Rome.

Anyway, we eventually ended up with a group of six, Kat, Trevor, Christina, Adrianne, Sarika and I, and we booked a bus trip to Paris. All we had to do was hop on a train to London and get on the bus. The bus would take us to Paris via either the Chunnel or fairy, we wouldn't know until we got to Dover, where both the Chunnel and fairy were located. It didn't matter to me, so long as we made it to Paris.

Sarika took care of the hotel reservations and we were ready to go...

But as we learned in Italy, even the easiest travel plans are subject to error.

July 26, 2006

I don't know why a bunch of people were in my room, but I've got pictures of Stephen hacking away at frozen orange juice and it's funny.

Up next... Paris.


Our return trip from Italy went about as well as it began... miserably.

We all sleep through our respective alarms, we were just so tired that we couldn't help ourselves. We wake up late and rush to the bus stop. We should be fine, assuming all things go well.

They don't.

The bus is more than half an hour late. It takes us to the train station where we have to catch a train to Treviso. We've already missed the train we had planned on taking, but there's another one leaving at 8:00AM and we get on it. If the train is on time there is a good chance that we'll still make our flight.

It doesn't.

The train is 1o minutes late.

We make it to Treviso and realize that we have to take a Taxi to get to the airport. Not cool. However, assuming that there is a taxi outside of the station, we will probably still make our flight.

There isn't. And there's no phone to call one.

A driver finally shows up. We flag him down and pile in quickly. He speeds like a mad man for us. By the time we make it to the airport we are out of the car with our bags in hand in a hurry. I don't even think we had time to thank him properly. He really did the best he could.

We get inside and the airport is smaller than my apartment. It is literally two check in windows, one small food counter, and two gates with two metal detectors for security.

We walk up to the check in window and they tell us that we're 15 minutes late, and they make no effort to accomodate us. They tell us that the Captain has already put together the flight itinerary with the names of all the passengars and there's no way they can change it. All they can do is put us on another flight for 60 euros a piece that doesn't leave for at least 3 hours. Maybe it was more, I don't remember. All I know is that I booked my original flight for less than half that.

Not cool. Not cool at all. It means that some of us, me included, will miss our first class of the second session. But we don't have a choice. Ryanair had obviously chosen to make an extra 240 than to help us out. We change our flight information and the woman suggests that we go do a little sight seeing around Treviso since we have so much time.

There's not much for food in the airport and we have hours, so we take a taxi and then a bus to go see the city.

We eat at McDonalds and realize that there is nothing of interest in the city. In fact I only took two pictures.

One is the picture you see above, the other is the one you see here.Yeah, nothing special. We get on the plane and fly back to England. I slept most of the flight. We get to the airport and catch a train.

And then we have train issues. There's waiting and there's transferring. And then around 5PM there's stopping. For some reason the train were we on was being separated and we were on the half that had to wait. It was ridiculous. I have a video of the four of us on a train, but it's long so I think I'll skip it.

We finally made it back to campus at almost 8PM... nevermind that we were supposed to be back by just past noon.

It was a rough day and a frustraing end to a weekend in Italia.

Feb 16, 2008


Our trip to Venice began with an overnight train ride six hours north east from Rome. We waited on the platform for our train to arrive, under the impression that there is assigned seating once we get on. We climb aboard and calmly walk to our cabin, only to find out that it is occupied by people who were already sleeping. They shut the door in our face and we keep walking.

In the mean time, people have been making mad dashes to any cabin they could find. This should have been an indication to us that the reserved seating was not enforced. Whoops.

We had already broken up into two groups, and Venise, Antony, Jen and I are searching for a cabin. We finally find one, but it doesn't feel very cold. We're running out of options and we figure there's a possibility the air just isn't on because the cabin is unoccupied.

No such luck... the A/C is definately broken. But we've already put our bags up and tried to pull out the seats so that we can lay down. The seats are stuck as well, but we make do. Venise has a very badly swollen ankle that we're trying to keep elevated and Jen has been devoured by bugs that have mercilessly attacked her legs.

Shortly into our train ride a gentlemen pokes his head into our cabin and asks if there's room for one more. All the other cabins are full and he's tired of searching. He helps us pull out the seats further and he joins us in our very hot and humid misery.

Some of us got a little sleep, but I remember all six hours. I remember not knowing when we were supposed to get off the train. Venice is actually a series of islands with a portion of the city on the mainland. We could have gotten off on the mainland, but we had paid for tickets that took us all the way out to an island.

We finally get off the train and are irritated to find out that it's actually colder outside than it was on the train. And then we find the rest of our crew and all I can say is "You're wearing sweaters?!"

Turns out their A/C was broken as well, and they spent their entire night too cold to sleep. Just our rotten luck, right?

We sit inside the train station for a while waiting for the Venitian equivalent of buses to start running. Hooray for water taxis.

I was excited to leave the station and see canals. We were even in time to see the sun rise. And below is one of the statues that was right next to the train station.
Eventually we each pay 10 euro for an all day pass... it might have been 12, someone please correct me if I'm wrong... and we load onto the boat.

I'm looking forward to seeing the city, but I don't know much about Venice and I didn't really have the chance to do my homework. We decide to ride for a while to figure out where we're going. Except we're so tired, as soon as we sit down we start dropping like flies. From left to right we have Jen, Kat, Antony and Sarika. The reflection in the window shows that Venise is still awake, but that doesn't last long.
Venise and Trevor, both passed out.

I've got plenty more... Christina, Antony after he's moved, Kat... but sleeping college kids is only entertaining for so long. I mean it was so bad Kat said she'd "blinked longer than she'd slept." No, it's not quoted properly, I replaced I'd with she'd and not used [ ]. I know...

Most of us sleep through the morning rush, and I watch the locals get frustrated with a bunch of young tourists asleep and taking all the seats, all the while lamenting the fact that we're in VENICE and all we're doing is riding around in a mini motorboat. But I understood how tired we all were and at some point briefly succumbed to sleep as well.
After riding around for nearly two hours and taking in the scenery twice, we get off at Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark's Square, home of St. Mark's Basilica and Campanile. It's the tourist hotspot and a beautiful one at that.

Did I mention I loved Venice? I love Venice. Anyway...

The square is very unique. This will give you an overall idea of the layout.
The water is to your back, the Campanile is to your left, the Basilica and some buildings with beautiful facades to your right, and the square continues off to your left around the Campanile. It's more of a backwards L shape if you will. And now for the close ups.
I don't know much about the Campanile, but I know that the Campanile on the Berkeley campus is modeled after it, and somewhere around here I have a picture of all the Cal kids standing in front of it. Christina, Venise and I were the only non-Cal students of the bunch. Hmph.
Found it. It was taken on Trevor's camera and I just borrowed it from his Facebook...

And this is one of my favorite shots of the Basilica with all the tables and chairs that fill the square from the nearby cafes. The compression just kills the shot. From another angle... This portion of the square is also filled with tourists feeding the pigeons. I know I just heard about twenty people say ewww, but for some reason we did it and it was hilarious. We bought two bags of birdseed for a euro a piece from a woman in the square, and we fed the birds. Let me tell you, those are some smart birds.

And yes Mom, I washed my hands afterwards.

As we were running out of birdseed someone suggested that Antony lie down and we cover him in it. Well, I wouldn't have mentioned it if he hadn't done it, would I?

Following the feeding frenzy we broke up for a little while to do our own thing. I of course walked around and took pictures. I didn't go into the Basilica, but Trevor did and he said it was pretty cool.

Here are some details of the Basilica and the surrounding buildings.
To give you a better idea of just how big the square is, I have a little video for you.

And of course, what is Venice without some water and gondolas?We meet back up and decide it is time to check in to our hotel. To do that we have to go back to the trainstation to go back to the main land to take a bus to get to our hotel. The trainstation via water taxi and mainland via train was easy. The bus was not so easy.
The guy at the trainstation told us we had to take the 9 to get to our hotel. He also told us how soon it would be arriving. He got the bus number right and the ETA very very wrong. We wait for more than an hour, and even venture off two at a time to get food and drinks while waiting. Some of us fall asleep... the whole bit. The bus finally arrives and we make it Hotel "R" around 1PM. We take turns getting into the shower and putting on clean clothes. I had changed by shirt at the trainstation earlier that morning, but some people were still in the clothes they had worn the day before in Rome. And if we weren't showering, we were definately napping.

I think we made it out of our hotel around 3:30PM. Two and a half hours for 8 people is pretty darn good. But for some of us, me included, this was our only day in Venice, and we wanted to see as much of it as possible.

We make it back out to the island and we have a few things on our list. Dinner, a gondola ride, gifts and gelatto.

At some point during our walk Antony suggests that we steal some guy's boat. Trevor is instantly up for the idea. I look at it and see POLIZIA down the side. Now I don't speak Italian, but I'm pretty sure I do know what that means. I know they're joking, at least I think they are, but I still decide to tell them "You guys know that's a Police boat." They hadn't notice that yet, and everyone busts up laughing.
This would be "that guy's" boat...

We continue on our walk as the sun starts to set.
We do some shopping and I picked up two masks for my sisters. I wanted one for myself, but it was a full size mask with peacock feathers at a bargain price of 325 euros. I knew it would neither fit in my budget nor my suitcase and I sadly left it hanging from the rafters of the shop I found it in. It's one of those things I'll pick up on a return trip. Finally we find a gondola. We tried to stay away from the popular places figuring that the price my be cheaper if there wasn't a line around the block. Gondola rides are a total tourist attraction. No one in Venice uses them, they take the water taxis or they have their own boats.
This gondola is like the Ferrari of all gondolas, tricked out and tacky in red and gold. It's a little much, and we're all making fun of it until we find the gondollear and realize that the Ferrari is his. Kat and I don't really want to spend the money for the ride, and the boat only seats six anyway. She and I also aren't about to go find our own boat and pay 45 euros each for a 30 minute trip up and down a canal.

It is however something I will do when I go back.

So Kat and I watch the rest of the group load up and float off, and we wander.
... but not before taking a classic tourist shot on a bridge looking into the sun.
We find gelatto and enjoy. I believe Kat had peach and was savoring every last spoonful.
Next comes dinner. Yes, we had dessert before dinner. Sarika on the other hand had dessert for dinner. The ice cream sundae she ordered was larger than her head. It's definately dark by the time we're done eating and I take advantage of window sills and spot lighting.
We're not quite sure what to do now that we're done eating, so we head back to St. Mark's Square. The square is full of vendors selling paintings and trinkets. There are also more tables and chairs lining the square, and we figure out that there are three restaurants from the end of the square to the Basilica with outdoor seating. Each restaurant has it's own live orchestra playing, and it's almost like they're dueling. It sounds fantastic and creates a very romatic atmosphere. We sat down at one of the tables and planned on ordering a drink, but when we found out that a coke was 8 euro, we decided to grab drinks from a local store and sat in the middle of the square instead. The air had finally cooled down and the stone of the square was still warm. It was perfect. I just sat there watching it all, taking it all in.

Here we have the Basilica at night...
It gets late and we decide it's time to head back to the hotel. Four of us have to get up early in the morning to catch our flight and it's been a long day. We load up on a water taxi and we start the trip back. We had to catch a different boat then usual because of how late it was, and there was some confusion as to when we were going to get off. Unfortunately, Trevor got off one stop to early, and before we could get him back on the boat it pulled away from the dock. We drove off watching Trevor stand there all by himself.

We all felt terrible because we'd managed to lose Trevor. I mean first Venise in Rome and now Trevor. You could say we were a bit disorganized. So we waited at the last stop until Trevor was found and we all got back to the hotel safe and sound.

Those of us who are leaving in the morning pack our bags so that we're ready to go. We set alarms and go to sleep, ready to wake up in the morning and catch our plane out of Treviso, a nearby city, back to England.

If only things were so simple.