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Category: Journal (page 2 of 3)

Day Sixteen

Start your museum engines! 

We picked up a six day museum pass to bring us through our day of departure (sad!). The previous evening was spent calculating, probably too much, what days to see what in an effort to miss crowds. 


Which meant we were headed to Musee D’Orsay. Putting a museum in a train station was of course going to be attractive to me, but beyond that was an excitement to finally see the real works that I had only ever read and seen pictures of, all too often reproduced onto coffee mugs and key chains. 


But these were real. Manet. Monet. Cézanne. Sisley. What made the trip so great was not just these names, but all those that I didn’t recognize, or pulled at some long ago forgotten piece of art history. It’s wonderfully curated (duh) and pulls together great themes from room to room. Not a bad start for the museum offerings. 

Starving, we stopped at one of the first places that served food that we could afford and knew we would like. Which ended up being a burger joint. A comics themed burger joint. Which meant it was stacked high with French comics to go through while waiting for your food. Quirky and odd, it was perfect before trekking it across the city to fit in a second museum in one day. 


We plotted a careful route to go past a few attractions along the way, including Pompidou center and Saint Jacques tower, before reaching the Musee de arts and metiers. Which is basically a scientific artifacts museum. 


Almost two hundred years ago, Paris saw the need to preserve the tools that were leading to incredible advancements in everything from mechanisms to communication. So they started collecting and preserving these objects, and bam, really nerdy museum of some incredibly important items. Like the first battery. Ever. First camera. Ever. First pendulum to prove the earth spins. Ever. See a theme? The list could go on! The whole museum has great descriptions and text (in English too!) to guide you, but definitely under represents how important some of these things were. 

Having tickled both sides of the brain, it was time to head back to Montmarte. Having rekindled our desire for beer, we decided to swing by a brewery on our way home. Goute d’or brewery is Paris’ first craft brewery, which opened in…drumroll…2012. No wonder we can’t find beer here! Obviously wine is what is up, and we have no complaints about that, but it was nice to see a brewery doing well too. And everything that were making was delicious. So we bought twelve bottles after thoroughly sampling, and then lugged them back to our Airbnb. 


Then it was time for our final dinner there before we switched to a hotel in Saint Germain the next morning. It was a cold, windy, rainy evening, so we opted for something very near by that we knew wouldn’t disappoint: Oggi. The weather really kept people away, and we had the restaurant nearly to ourselves the whole evening. This led to great conversation with both waiters, finally letting us stretch our French in a slow and not intimidating way. A great meal ended with coffee and grappa. 

Content, we headed home and collapsed into bed, not wanting to think about packing and moving locations until tomorrow. 

Day Fifteen

Time for some R&R. 

This is a vacation too, isn’t it? We felt stretched pretty thin after all of our travels the past few days and now two weeks past since being at home and in a normal rhythm of things. So we slept in and took things slowly. 


We went back to Marcel for a late breakfast before seeing some more Montmarte sights; the incredibly cool, very urban, cemetery and a brief walk past the Moulin Rouge and all the sex shops the Pigalle area brings. 


We swung back up numerous Montmarte side streets to poke in small shops, picking up souvenirs and practicing French along the way. 


After dropping bags off at home, we set out for another important item: beer. There is plenty of 1664, Leffe and Carlsburg around, but we were craving something different, something, admittedly, more American. In this case, we settled with German, and went to a beergarden that we read about. It was empty when we arrived, but still quickly had great German beer brought to us. A pale ale. Hops. Glorious! 

Filled up on beer, we headed home to finish snacking on some food at our Airbnb, and plan out the final days of our trip, which included the great museum plunge. 

For dinner, we had a wonderful surprise. Our mutual friends from Apple were also in Paris during some over lapping time, and we were able to meet them for a dinner. The locale was Esens’all, specializing in gastronomy and French cuisine. A six course meal accompanied lovely conversation about all things travel we had all seen over the previous weeks. It was great to catch up, and the hours flew by. Eventually we had to part ways, but with wide smiles and full bellies. 

Day Fourteen

Normandy. 

We needed an even earlier start. We left while it was still dark, sun rising while we left Paris on our speeding train to Caen. Once there, we got our rental car and grabbed some sandwiches. Even train station baguettes are awesome here. 


We stopped at the world war 2 memorial museum in Caen first. A must visit, it does a great job of starting with the end of world war 1, and following the timeline up through the conclusion of world war 2. With a much different perspective than American history books and museums, we uncovered lots we didn’t know, and saw large collections of posters, weapons and uniforms, and other artifacts left from the war. We finished by exploring a bunker underneath the site of the museum left from the Nazis attempt at defending the area. 

In the right mindset, we hopped back in our Golf and headed for Omaha beach. Abby was thrilled to be driving a manual car, and I was certainly happy to be navigating through small French countryside roads and villages. After about 30-45 minutes on the road, we arrived out our first top, the memorial cemetery at Omaha Beach. Nearly 10,000 soldiers lie there, a somber spread of stark white crosses going on as far as you can see, the beach off in the distance. 


After a respectful and quiet visit, we headed down the road so we could make into the beach itself (access was closed at the museum/cemetery for some reason). We stopped at the monument dedicated for that beach’s landing more than 70 years ago, and took a long walk. It was a beautiful day, and it was amazing how quiet and peaceful it felt. I have a feeling anyone who visits there knowing what had happened in that same spot probably finds the contrast as extreme as well. 


After a delicious lunch, we headed up to Utah Beach. We were limited on time, but knew we had to go. There was enough time for a quick walk on the beach there too, and the drive back was lit by a beautiful sunset. Places we had only seen on maps, villages made famous after we watched Band of Brothers, they were all real now, we were going through them with our own eyes. 


Tired physically and emotionally, we made the hour drive back to Caen, returned our car, and hopped back on the train. It was a lot of travel for a day trip, and it would be easy to spend a whole week in Normandy, but it was worth it for the hours we got. 

We bought some cheese and fruit before heading home, and munched on crackers cheese and smoked meats while drinking wine, reflecting on the day. It had been a busy couple of days, I think we will sleep in tomorrow. 

Day Thirteen

Versailles. 

Knowing we faced similar line issues as the Eiffel Tower, we woke early and grabbed our assortment of Metro and commuter rail to get us out to the suburban palace. At least we had tickets bought ahead of time. 


We arrived and quickly made our way the few blocks to the main gate. We hopped in line just in time, large tour groups lined up behind us, quadroupling its length in a few minutes. It was 10 am and already super busy. 


We were inside quickly after, and began our self guided tour. Words can’t describe how over the top this place is. Check out the Instagram photos, which I feel like a broken record saying yet again. It’s not much a wonder there was a revolution, superfluous opulence surrounded us. 

It was also busy. Very busy. So much so we did feel a bit rushed and actually relieved when we made it to the open expanse of the gardens. And they are expansive. We spent hours more wandering outside before our stomachs got the best of us. We grabbed a quick lunch and then headed to the Trianon and Marie Antoinettes estate. 


The grand and petite Trianon are both spectacular. They may not drip with gold leaf like the main palace, but they are every bit as impressive structures. They were also empty. The journey to a far corner of the ground must be daunting for enough people that we could finally take our leisurely time and take in these great surroundings. 


By the time we made it to Marie Antoinettes estate and village, we were exhausted. It was over 90, sun out this whole time. So we began the almost hour long walk from this far corner of the grounds to the train station. 

This put us back in Montmarte early enough to shower and head back out to dinner at a place that caught our eye the night before. It seemed slightly silly to come all the way to Paris and then have Brazilian food, but after our first bite we knew we had chosen wisely. 

Chicken beignets. A seafood curry unlike anything else. Caramel pudding. And some thorough exercises in speaking French with the waitress who spoke nearly no English. A solid dinner. 

We could get used to this. 

Day Twelve

Eiffel Tower Day!

We knew it would be busy. We were told, and tried, to buy tickets online. But the first availability was almost four weeks away. So we got up early, hopped two metro trains over, and got in line 45 minutes before ticketing opened. 


And all was fine. The signage and directions were a bit lacking, but we eventually found ourselves past initial security and waiting for ticketing. Once the window opened, we were through security point number two and waiting for one of the famous double decker elevators not 15 minutes later. We quickly changed to the second elevator to take us to the top, knowing it would only get more crowded. 


And that second elevator is fun. I’ve been in plenty of tall buildings before, but never one so open and minimal surrounding you. Heights normally don’t affect me much, but this was a very interesting experience. To be clear: absolutely worth it. Especially when we stepped out at the top. 

All of a sudden you realize how big this thing is, and how few skyscrapers there really are in one of the worlds biggest cities. Kilometer after kilometer of winding streets bellow head off in every direction, dotted by wonderful landmarks. And we had luckily picked a gorgeous day weather wise to make the trip. 


After sufficient tourist photo taking, we went back down to the “second” floor where it was less crowded and we could spend more time poking around. Being closer to the ground out everything on a surprisingly different scale, and so we had to take just as many photos. 

We descended to the “first” floor via stairs and grabbed a few more photos. The open center allowed for some great admiring of the structure, including walking across the more recently added glass floors. Stomachs thoroughly turned, we took the stairs back down to solid ground and had our leave. 

Heading across the Seine, we went to our first of many museums on our list, Musee l’homme. Exploring humanities past, both scientifically and culturally, it takes an incredible journey through where we came from, where we are, and a brief look of where we might end up. There isn’t a lot of English, so bone up before your visit, but it’s very worth it. Incredibly thought provoking, and wonderful artifacts on display. 


Starving, we headed for the champs elysee in search of food. Swinging by the Arc de Triumph, we sought out a small cafe and grabbed some food. Abby also found out what 100 cl of beer looks like. I didn’t complain, the metric system is great! 

We hit up a few stores along the way, people and car watching the whole time. Several blocks of gazing and shopping later, we hopped the Metro back home to freshen up before dinner. 


We stayed local for dinner, having eyed a place the night before while researching. Not wanting to miss out, we wandered down a bit earlier than necessary, and grabbed a table at Le Vache et Le Cuisiner. Dinner was incredible. 

Ratatouille that was like vegetable pudding. Perfectly poached eggs with mushrooms. Quail fillets with amazing fingerling potatoes. Perfectly cooked fish that fell off the bone. I’m hungry writing this all over again. Oh and we finished with great creme brûlée and plum sorbet. 

What a day. We slept very well. 

Day Eleven

We got to wake up in Montmarte, and it was glorious. Our Airbnb looks out over a great courtyard, so we get to see and hear this small part of Paris wake up around us. 


After lounging around for a while, we roused ourselves and headed to a recommended brunch spot, Marcel. After having amazing poached eggs, we decided to more thoroughly investigate the neighborhood around us. 

Perched up on a rather steep hill, narrow winding roads connected by a series of stairways had a certain familiarity to it. We poked around side streets and eventually ended up at Sacre Coeur. 


It’s a beautiful building, both inside and out. While nice that it is free to visit, this made it very busy and so we made our visit brief. The overcast day hedges the view a bit too, even though it was still spectacular. Returning on a clear day is in our future. 

More exploring gave us our bearings. Grocery. Wine store. Restaurants we wanted to return to. A slow map was building of all the places you can’t read about or look up until you’re finally at the place. 


So we spent the rest of our evening planning, buying tickets, arranging loose schedules of days. Of course the baguette and bottle of wine helped tremendously. 

We headed to bed early, knowing tomorrow was an early rise to try and get to the Eiffel Tower before the huge lines struck. 

Day Ten

Paris!

We slept in. We had to. We just traveled 2800 kilometers in a handful of days, stopping in some amazing places. So we slept in. 


After sneaking out just before checkout time, we had the hotel hold our bags as we started taking in the sites. We walked without purpose, merely hoping to find a cafe at some point. Wide tree lined streets, gorgeous buildings, accents and fashion a plenty; all the things we’ve been told about for years were finally becoming first hand experiences. 

We finally settled on a cafe we liked and had a delicious late breakfast. Settling in, we both faced the sidewalk for some slow coffee drinking and plenty of people watching. 


Eventually we headed off to the Jardin des Plantes, enjoying the crowds of locals enjoying their weekends set against a wonderful variety of plants and flowers. I guess they named the park correctly. 

A short walk along the Seine and we wandered through Ile Saint Louis. We finally got our first photo of Notre Dame, but resisted the urge to take more, knowing we would have to spend a large part of a day in the future there. 


We took a long arc back to the hotel to gather our things before heading to Montmarte and our Airbnb. Some more pastries and drinks refreshed us, and we began our subway journey. A transfer and way more steps than we expected had us on top of the hill, wandering down streets until we found the right building. 

We unpacked. And not just a change of clothes for a day. We really unpacked, but everything away, settled in. We now had a home for a week. The travel had been great, we’ve seen tons, but it was wonderful to walk to a corner store and buy some soap, a cold beer and s bottle of wine, knowing we had some place to leave them. 


We headed back out for dinner, a bit too early as it turned out, and had to “settle” for a cheese and meat plate with some rosé at a cafe that was open while we waited for restaurants to start their service. 

After finding our first choice booked solid for the night, we headed to Oggi, and Italian themed restaurant a few blocks from our place. What a wonderful decision. Delicious pasta, a food which largely didn’t exist anywhere we had been so far, was a delicious treat. Accompanied with great French wine, it was hard to not enjoy the surroundings. Which included a very talkative pair of natives next to us that we eventually broke down the language barrier of, and had a delightful conversation ranging a wide variety of topics. 

Montmarte was a good choice of neighborhood. 

Day Nine

Our last day of crazy whirlwind train tours! 

We woke up early in Vienna as our train was scheduled to depart at 7:30. We opted for nice business class seats, and quickly were situated and on our way. The Austrian country side flying by, we finished some chocolate croissants and espresso. 

A few hours into the trip we cut through Germany before turning back south into the Austrian alps. Which then became mile after mile of draw dropping beauty. Beautiful chalets and farms, sweeping vistas framed by mountain ranges. It was hard to stop taking photos, meanwhile we are surround by more native travelers who are working on laptops and planning meetings while this all rushes by. 

Distracting from this are some delays caused by track works. We were averaging 15-20 minutes behind schedule, and we only had 14 minutes to make our transfer in Zurich. By the time we actually arrived, we were a hair over 30 minute late. Our train was long gone. We were directed to a customer service desk, grabbed our ticket to wait in line, and braced for the worst. 
We started to imagine fighting with some surly agent in a foreign language after an hour wait. Biased by our U.S. Expectations around travel, we were pleasantly surprised to be fast tracked to the next available desk, where a friendly attendant had new tickets sorted on the next train that leaves with a stop in Basel, all in less than 5 minutes. At no cost, which when asked about garnered “Of course no cost, it is our mistake not yours, enjoy your trip”. Revolutionary. 

So we stowed our bags and meandered along the river, snapping what few touristy photos we could at our surprise stop over in Zurich. 45 minutes later we hopped on a very full train to Basel, where we transferred to our TGV to Paris. Unfortunately our delay caused the sun to set during this leg, preventing good vistas of the countryside at 200mph. When heading to Paris, it seemed inappropriate to complain however. 

We lugged our bags through Gare de Lyon to the small hotel we had booked for one night, just to be close to the train station before getting to our Airbnb the next day. And what a great idea that turned out to be. We were exhausted. Thrilled to be in Paris, we gave in to sleep. 

Day Eight

I woke before Abby on the train as we were stopped in Budapest for an engine change. The sun just beginning to rise, I managed to grasp a few glimpses of the Danube (again) and some very pretty city streets. We were quickly in some foggy countryside as the sun rose, incredibly picturesque. 


We arrived in Vienna around 8:30, 10 minutes late on our 16 hour leg. Amtrak could learn a thing or two. We were now suddenly in a modern marvel of a building that handles more passengers than pittsburghs airport. Easing back into a more western life was a bit more jarring than expected. Our hotel held our bags as we decided to grab breakfast before trying to find something historical to make ourselves feel better.


Having decided to stretch our legs, we walked a bit more than a kilometer to a small cafe in a park. After struggling with our lack of German language skills, we managed to order a spectacular breakfast on the banks of the river Wien. Shortly after we hopped on the U Bahn and headed to Schönbrunn Palace. 


And what a palace it is. The grounds are absolutely enormous flowing out behind the equally large palace. We opted for the tour first, as large crowds were already forming. A short wait, which we filled with espresso, and we were able to enter at our assigned time for our self guided tour. 

Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I’m not sure they would do the rooms justice. We meandered through 40 rooms of immaculately preserved and restored paintings, wall coverings, furniture, clothing and dinnerware. Large halls. Private bathrooms. Studies. All of it was pristine and stunning. 


After we explored the gardens and grounds for longer than it took us to look through the actual palace. Fountains. Flowers. Sculptures. Acre after acre of perfectly sculpted trees and shrubs guided you along wonderful gravel paths. A climb up the hill at the far end of the gardens led to an amazing view out over the city. After plenty of walking in the sun, we headed back to the hotel to see if our room was ready and to cool off a bit. 

Checked in, refreshed and cooled down a bit, we headed back out for more sights and dinner. We swung by Augarten to admire the old porcelain factories, and the let over defense towers from WW2. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it was hard to imagine such massive structures built for war. 


We carried on around the ring road that used to separate old Vienna from the newer outer sections. Now a wide boulevard accommodating trolleys, cars, bikes and pedestrians, large historic buildings lined both sides. We settled on a fantastic restaurant based in a vaulted basement underground for dinner. The food was outstanding, and the beer even better. Full of both, we took in the night sights as we made it back to the hotel. Another nights sleep in a real bed, and we would begin the longest, and final, rail leg of our trip. To Paris. 

Day Seven

Having recovered somewhat from our lengthy train encounter, we woke up in Bucharest wanting to get a good view of the city with our morning, since our train to Vienna left at 2 that afternoon. 


We opted for a walking loop, hitting up Cismigiu Park and the Parliament building before heading back through the edge of the old city and admiring architecture on Calea Victoriei
The architecture is an amazing mix, spanning from decaying facades of the cities pre-socialist past, through the concrete glass and metal structures erected in the 60-80s, to the resurgence in revitalizing and preserving more and more of the historic structures. The contrast was amazing to behold. 


There were no tourists. We were the only ones taking pictures, and we certainly didn’t hear any English. But we never felt judged our out of place, every person we interacted with was incredibly friendly and understanding of our lack of Romanian language comprehension. Even our botched attempt at a late breakfast where we tried to pay with the wrong currency with a line forming didn’t show the slightest bit of frustration. 
We ended our brief journey back at the hotel, agreeing that we would love to com back and spend more time in this great city, and likely see more of the beautiful country. We gathered our bags and hopped onto what we were hoping would be a smoother train ride. 


A real train. With multiple cars. A diner car. Sleeper cabins. What was this magic? Awe struck compared to the prior day’s journey, we settled into our room, marveling at having beds, a sink, and so many places to store bags and hang clothes. We sprawled out on the lower bunk and quickly took in the sights as we pulled out. 


After a few hours of beautiful rolling countryside full of sunflowers (Romania is a world leader in sunflower seed/oil production, we learned after seeing so many huge fields) we approached the Carpathian Mountains. Slowly meandering and climbing up valleys, we were treated to splendid vistas and quaint towns as well as larger tourist centers aimed at ski slopes. Eventually we descended into Brasov, leaving the mountains as a constant reminder on our left as we turned and headed towards Hungary. 
As the evening progressed, we decided to try out the lap of luxury that was having fresh food on this train (compared to our loaf of bread with packs of cheese and salami from the last trip). Our very friendly waiter/cook happily explained the confusing menu, and we soon had entrees, salads and a bottle of wine to accompany the setting sun. 
Meal finished, we polished off the bottle in our room playing continuo. The black countryside the only view we had, we decided to try our our bunks and get some sleep. And sleep we did. 
Until a 1:30 am border crossing into Hungary. But taking less than an hour for both checks, and having beds to get back into, it wasn’t long until we were on our way and back asleep, Vienna in our future. 

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