May, 1st Half
France exchange rate:
Mon. May 4: Paris. A lot has happened--I feel really behind again. Wed. we flew from Belfast to Paris. Took the bus to the international airport--30 minutes and £3.50. We came to a security checkpoint and more armed soldiers checked out the bus. One even came on, machine gun too, and walked to the back of the bus, checking every row. Got to the airport and had our bags x-rayed at the front door, before we even got to the check-in counter. Then more questions and x-rays before getting to the plane, but always with a smile and polite words--especially after we say something and they realize we're tourists. Switched planes in Manchester, England, then got to Paris about 4:30 pm. Got a map from the tourist office at the airport and called the two YHAs. Both were full of course. Then called the place listed in our book that does hotel bookings. But they were closing before we could get there (the airport is quite a ways from the city), and they don't do reservations over the phone. So they bent the rules a bit and gave us a phone number of a place. A few weeks ago Brent (friend that works with K.) gave us the address and phone number of his brother in Paris. He had called them to see if they had room for us for a few days. (And they did.) But they weren't home, so we kept calling places. By this time we were realizing how late it was getting and how much we wished we had arrived earlier. The hotel we called had dorms for 95F (US$17.30) each, which was average for Paris, and would have been the highest we had paid yet. Getting directions to the hotel was almost impossible. Finally got the very nice lady at the tourist desk to call for us. But at the last minute we called Bruce (the brother) and Sue, and they were home. Got directions and headed out, stopping for Burger King first. Prices here are incredible! A Whopper is somewhere around 28F (US$5.10!) and a Big Mac about 25F (US$4.50). Admission fees to museums etc. are usually 25-40F (US$4.50-7.30). But Paris does have an advantage over London when it comes to cheap fast food. Instead of pizza, hamburgers, and fish & chips, Paris has baguette sandwiches on almost every corner for about 20F (US$3.60). Good, cheap, and not greasy. And lots of bakeries and cheese shops. Got to Bruce and Sue's house by 9 pm, after taking a free bus to the train station, and then taking three trains to get to a suburb on the West side. They have 2 kids--Sara is 3 and Brandon is 1. Had a lot of fun playing with them. (Actually, we had baby-sat for them a few months before the trip.) It's so nice just to be in a real home again. To be able to sit on a real couch in a real living room, and just do nothing but watch TV and relax. For us, this is a vacation!
Thurs. we went to see a doctor at the American Hospital. Kathey had a gradually worsening problem of having to go to the bathroom more often than normal, and it was at a point that she felt she should do something about it. They did some tests and told us to come back Tues. Which meant we wouldn't leave until Wed., instead of Sat. We were really lucky we had people to stay with in such an expensive place. I had no idea Paris was this expensive--it seems more expensive than what I remember about Japan. The Metro (subway) is 5.50F (US$1) for a ticket to anywhere in the city. It's much more confusing than London was--but that could be because we also had to use the SNCF lines to get out to the suburbs. For normal city stuff, the Metro is used most--look for the "M" (or M with a circle around it) signs everywhere. The lines are referred to by the terminus stations at each end of the line, rather than having a name for the line itself. But there are also 4 RER lines in the city. These lines are named A, B, C, & D, and they're referred to by either the endpoint or A1, A2, etc. The line that goes to the airport is an RER line. For long distances, the RER is great because it only stops every 4th stop or so that the Metro stops for. But it costs a little more--I think about 6F instead of 5.50F. We once took the RER for 4 stops that would have been 18 on the Metro. There are daypasses, but we found it easiest to buy a pack of 10 Metro tickets for 34F (instead of 55) and use them whenever we wanted. You can go anywhere you want, and change lines as many times as you want, with one ticket, as long as you don't go above ground until you're finished. To change lines, look for the "Correspondence" signs--don't go to the "SORTIE" (exit) until you're finished transferring. There's usually a sign that says something like: "Limite de Validite de Billetes" which means if you go that way before you're finished you'll have to use a new ticket to get back in. From Fri. to Tues. we did a lot of sight-seeing. The Louvre was really good. Usually 32F but only 16 (the under 26 price) on Sundays. Sue told us about a great way to enter the Louvre. The Louvre is in the shape of a sideways "U", with the opening facing west. Most people go to the entrance at the glass pyramid in the center.
There must have been at least 1,000 people waiting when we went. But there's another entrance called the "Porte Jaujard" where you can walk right up, pay, and go in without waiting at all. It's on the bottom leg of the "U", near the left end, on the inside.
There's a lot to see--it's a huge place. The Mona Lisa was just as I'd seen in all the pictures. It was enclosed in glass and there were 2 guards telling people not to take pictures (even without a flash). But that didn't stop most people from snapping one anyway.
The Venus de Milo was much more accessible. The Eiffel Tower was also about like I'd imagined, but still huge and impressive.
You can see it from several points around the city. Also went to Père LaChaise Cemetery, where a lot of really famous people are buried. Of course, this is where Jim Morrison (of the rock group The Doors) is buried, and there's always a crowd gathered. On the map at the entrance people have marked arrows pointing to his grave, and the closer you get to it the more graffiti you see about him. Went to St. Chapelle Cathedral and Notre Dame on Sunday. St. Chapelle was 25F (US$4.50) and incredible. I've never seen so much stained glass.
It shouldn't be missed. Notre Dame was also impressive.
They were having an open service when we went Sunday afternoon, including music and singing. A river runs right through Paris, and it's nice to walk around the 2 small "islands" where St. Chapelle and Notre Dame are--lots of people selling paintings, books, etc. One day we bought 2 sandwiches and a small bottle of wine and had lunch in the park just west of the Louvre, then walked up the Champs Èlysèes to the Arch de Triomphe. The Arch is another of the incredible huge sights of Paris--and just as awesome as the others.
Some of the old buildings and streets remind me of London. But you know it's Paris because of the thousands of sidewalk cafes with people drinking wine and watching the world go by.
I'm really glad we didn't leave Sat. My impression of Paris changed about 180 degrees for the better after the first few days of confusion. In a way it's probably like traveling in the U.S. At home, we rarely translate our signs into other languages, and they see no reason to do it in Paris either. Very much unlike Asia, the people here seem happy to live their life without worrying a lot about tourists. Once you realize that, you see that Parisians are generally very helpful and nice--especially if you begin your questions with a smile, "Bonjour", and "Parlez-vous anglais?" (Do you speak English) before charging ahead in English and assuming that they speak it (and want to). As when we stayed at K's friends in England, we got to see a lot of "normal" life staying with Bruce and Sue here. Both families live in small communities dominated by Americans, and like us, try to stay in touch with what's happening "back home".
Wed. May 6: Berne, Switzerland. Kathey ended up getting some pills from the doctor, and we said goodbye to our new friends after a great week. A couple of days ago we went to the Lyon ("Lee-YOHN") train station and made a reservation for the trip to Berne ("Burn"). This morning we got up at 4 am to make it to the other side of Paris for our 7:15 train. The first train went from Paris to Frasne (just before the Swiss border), and was a TGV (high speed) train, which means it requires a reservation--16F (US$3) each. You get a seat assignment card. If you change the reservation by phone, you still have to go to one of the windows before you leave and get a new card. The train was fast and fancy--a long way from the ones in Thailand. Electric automatic doors, a clean (and real) bathroom, and it was quiet. Changed trains in Frasne. Not quite as "luxurious" as the TGV, but still fast and very nice. Didn't need a reservation on this one, so you just sit anywhere. Stopped at the border. First the French official came through and looked at our passports. They didn't even stamp them when we arrived in Paris, and they just looked at the picture now. Behind him was the Swiss official, who did the same. Then the customs guy asking if we had anything to declare. After that we were on our way again, and still hadn't received a stamp in our passports since we flew from Greece to London--including Ireland and N. Ireland.
Switzerland exchange rate:
Arrived here at noon. The first thing that struck us about Switzerland is how organized and efficient everything is. Changed money, called the hostel, made our reservations for a night train to Rome Friday and a day trip to Interlaken ("Inter-lock-en") tomorrow, and ate lunch--all before leaving the station, and all with the greatest of ease. It's really beautiful here. Very green and lots of mountains and valleys with little villages.
The hostel is very nice. Costs 14 SFr (US$9.50) each. It's also right in the city, which is not the norm for YHAs. Walked around a little this evening, but mostly we're pretty tired from the long day. Traveling is good again. It was feeling like work for a while, but things are exciting again now that we're moving (especially since things are easy here). A little concerned about Germany at the moment. They've had general strikes for a few days which is causing a lot of problems with the mail and public transportation there. Hope it's cleared up soon. We've also been following the problems in the States. The verdict about the Los Angeles police brutality and Rodney King sparked riots all over L.A., and even other cities like Atlanta. Even the local papers here are filled with stories about the "Violence In America."
Mon. May 18: Salzburg, Austria. This is getting ridiculous--I haven't written in 12 days and 2 countries! Everything is going so fast. Every 4th day is a new city and every 8th a new country.
Tues. May 19: See what I mean? We're now on a train from Salzburg to Munich--it's a short ride, only an hour and 40 minutes. I'll start way back in Berne, Switz. Went to Interlaken one day--about an hour away by train. Cost SFr 34 (US$23) each, round trip.
Wed. May 20: Munich, Germany. I'm trying! Really! The mountains were beautiful at Interlaken--you can't see them from Berne. I guess I've always seen pictures of the Swiss Alps during the winter, covered in snow. It's too warm for that now, but there was snow on the caps. Walked around the town and had lunch. Nice relaxing day.
Berne is a small, capitol city--nothing really spectacular about it, but it's pretty. A river runs through, and parts of the city are on different levels of the hills. The signs are translated in up to 6 languages--German (the official language for this part of Switz.), English, French, Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. It feels like it should be Germany though, listening to people speaking. I'd like to come back some day in the winter. Spent the last afternoon (after about 3 days) watching the bears at the bear pits. ("Berne" means bear in German.) They roll around and do tricks to bribe you out of food. Also went to the library for a while--K. wrote a letter and I used their CD player and listened to a few CDs they had. Took the train that night to Rome. We had read and heard all the horror stories about trains in Italy, and especially the night train to Rome. There have been quite a few cases of people being gassed while they slept, to wake up several hours later missing their luggage and even their money belt, which was strapped on them. We got a 2nd class couchette ("coo-SHET"), which is a fold-down bed--there are 6 to a room--4 in 1st class. We were assured that the door locked, and it did--although we had to ask the conductor how to do it. But after we made sure everyone in the room knew how to use it, we felt pretty safe.
Italy exchange rate:
Slept pretty well, and arrived in "Roma" about 9 am. We took breakfast stuff with us, and ate it before we got there. Also, about the night trains... They're good for the long trips, like eight hours, because you arrive early in the morning. Finding a room in the afternoon is not fun. Rome was warm. Upper 70s (24-26 C) usually. We haven't felt that since India!
Thurs. May 21: Prague, Czechoslovakia. As I was saying... Spent most of our time running from one great sight to another in Rome. Along with hearing about theft on the trains, we had also heard about the Gypsy kids that circle around you with newspaper and take your money belt and everything in your pockets. But we had also heard that they could be pretty easily deterred by yelling "No!" and pointing as they came towards you. I guess they work with the elements of surprise and ignorance. So we were constantly looking over our shoulders, and making sure our day packs were locked. But as with the trains, we had no problems--we didn't even see any kids. Other people told us they had seen a few incidents, so I guess we just got lucky. Or maybe we're just more careful. We've seen a lot of really stupid tourists doing a lot of really stupid things. Like exchanging money and then counting it as they walk down the street. Or carrying cameras and bags in ways that just invite someone to steal them. Rome felt a bit like Athens--kind of old and dirty, but very interesting. Also lots of outdoor cafes ready to serve the tourists and charge outrageous prices. We usually got sandwiches or pizza and ate them on the run. We did eat at a "nice" restaurant one night. Bad Italian food, high prices, and rude service. We weren't missing much. The first day we went to the Colosseum and the Forum. The Colosseum was huge and really good. They say the Romans used to fill it with water for mock Naval battles--incredible!
A lot of it was restored in the 1800s, but most of it is still original. It feels strange to write about famous places and things like this because so many people reading this have already seen them. Back in Asia things were relatively unseen compared to things like the Eiffel Tower.
Sun. May 24: Prague. Still doing Rome... Went to the Trevi fountain. We'd heard it had been all boarded up for renovations for a long time, but it was open when we saw it. It's in a square, surrounded by buildings, so it's kind of center-stage. Pretty. Unfortunately the water pressure is low during the day--when we saw it the water wasn't running at all. Mother's Day was May 10th (in the States at least, not in the UK--it's in April) so we both called home. Also went to the Spanish Steps. A wide stairway leading up to a building, with a fountain at the bottom of the steps. Lots of flowers, but mostly the place is a hangout for the local teens, wearing their best clothes and trying to impress the opposite sex. Pretty though.
The Vatican was great, and big. It was Sunday evening when we went--we were going for the 5 o'clock mass in St. Peter's Basilica. The Basilica was the most amazing building we've seen on the entire trip--on the inside anyway, the Taj Mahal wins it for the outside. It's huge!
I could spend hours walking around inside just looking at everything. Beautiful statues, paintings, and gold everywhere, and everything is in remarkable condition. When we first stepped inside our jaws dropped. We were speechless for the first few minutes. After a long walk to the back, you get to the seating area and the altar. Before the mass, the choir came in and sang several songs. We've seen a lot of really impressive buildings and cathedrals, but this was in a class by itself--nothing like anything we've seen so far. Truly one of the highlights of our trip.