Bonjour, Paris! Popping bottles and climbing stairs

Our first actual day in Paris, we did our own little walking tour. But first things first – food. We sit down at a cafe, and Daniela orders her usual – a Coke. They have three sizes, so she asks me which one she should get, and I say medium. But of course, she goes for the large size. Next thing we know, the waiter comes out holding a 2-liter mug filled with Coke, complete with fireworks. If that’s not the breakfast of champions, I don’t know what is:

Our first stop on the Agatha and Daniela Walking Tour was Ile de la Cite, the island on which the Notre Dame is located. It was insane to actually stand in front of this immensely historic building.

Then we kept strolling to the other bank and walked all the way to the Louvre. When we walked into the main courtyard of the Louvre and saw the huge pyramid structure, I have to admit that I got a little emotional; I just felt a burst of emotion swell in my chest. Paris seems to have a very emotional effect on me – just being here for the first time and seeing these world-reknown sites. They are truly beautiful and impressive.

At this point, we had taken a little detour to Starbucks and the tourism office to collect a bunch of brochures. We were hot, tired and sweaty, so Daniela and I headed to the Tuileries Gardens right in front of the Louvre to sit and rest. And watch the adorable duckies in the pond – well I watched them, you know how Daniela feels about animals.

Tuileries Gardens

We decided to take a champagne cruise to top off our first day in Paris. The boat cruise was a good call. On our way to the boat, we got our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, since our tour took off from the Seine right at the foot of the tower.

Our group of champagne drinkers had a nice VIP area at the front of the boat, closed off from the rest of the people (thank God!). And our group was pretty small, just about 10-12 people altogether. Funny enough, there was a family there from Chicago, too. Either it’s a really small world, or us Chicagoans really like our champagne cruises!

It was a beautiful cruise up and down the Seine River, right as the sun was beginning to go down. The boat took us from the Eiffel Tower, down to the Notre Dame, around Ile St. Louis and back again. Plus we had fun chatting with the other folks in the group – the family from Chicago, an Australian couple and our champagne tasting host, who ironically was from Indiana.

After the cruise, Daniela and I decided to get some dinner before tackling the Eiffel Tower, especially since we were feeling the effects of the champagne tasting. After dinner, we had a decision to make: pay extra to take the elevator to the very top (yikes!) or climb up God knows how many stairs to the second platform. I’m not sure if it was the champagne talking or us just being cheap – I mean frugal – but we decided to take the stairs.

View of Paris from the Eiffel Tower

It was pretty rough, especially since we were dolled up in dresses and not optimal climbing shoes. It was worth it though, being inside that steel structure and looking out over Paris. And we climbed back down in time to see the tower light up in the dark with thousands of twinkling lights – another emotional experience.

At that point, we were truly exhausted (and a little crabby) so, after a little drama catching a cab, went to the hotel and literally knocked out as soon as our bodies hit the bed. Ok, maybe I woke up a couple hours later to throw a tantrum about Daniela’s purse being on my side of the bed, but after that it was back to sleep.


Mission impossible: London to Paris edition

To get from London to Paris, we took the train (or as my mom called it, a rocket) for a two-hour trip under the English Channel. The actual train ride was fine, although not really too exciting because I couldn’t even tell when we were under water exactly since we were just going through a dark tunnel. A lot of ear-popping though. And very cool that Londoners could be in Paris in two hours (and vice versa).

Even though I try really hard to think things out when planning a trip, my attempts at rational decision-making always seem to fail miserably.

I thought it would be good to stay in London as late as possible and take the last train of the day to Paris so we could get the most out of our time in London. However, we were too exhausted at that point to spend the entire day walking around London, so Daniela and I ended up spending two hours at the hotel lobby, using the internet (and we still didn’t book a Barcelona hotel!).

Too make matters worse, I didn’t realize that Paris was an hour later than London, so by the time we arrived in the city of lights, it was actually almost midnight, not eleven like I had expected. Needless to say, arriving in a country completely foreign to us, where neither of us knew the language at all, at midnight when the train station is empty, was not a great feeling.

First mission, I had to find an ATM since we didn’t have any Euros yet. Second mission, I tried to track down some info about the metro, but by the time I found the stop and grabbed a schedule, the metro was about to stop running for the night. Mission number trois was to catch a cab, so we found the (very long) line at the taxi stand and cabbed it to the hotel.

Even just driving through Paris at night, I already felt like now we had truly arrived in Europe. We made it to the hotel and had just enough time to run into the little convenience store next door to grab some dinner – aka toast and cheese.

Lasting impressions: London

I enjoyed London, but I can’t say it’s my favorite place in Europe. To be quite honest, it didn’t truly feel like Europe to me for some reason. Maybe it’s because they also speak English, or maybe because they use pounds instead of Euros. It just doesn’t have the same feel or atmosphere (or maybe charm) that I usually associate with Europe based on my experiences so far.

But there’s definitely still more I’d like to see in London:

  • Visit the Tower of London, Tate Museum and some other remaining attractions (but NOT the London Eye – I don’t plan on ever going on there!).
  • Explore other neighborhoods outside of the immediate tourist area, including Chelsea and Notting Hill, to get more of a feel for the city.
  • Experience the nightlife! We were way too tired (or maybe too lame) to really party it up the few days we were in London.

That being said, I’d have to say my favorite experiences from this trip in London were the treasures collected during centuries of imperialism (i.e. British Museum), the legacy of London’s more recent history (the past 100 or 200 years, including writers like Dickens, characters like Sherlock Holmes and Peter Pan) and Westminster Abbey.

Cheerio London!

Hotel review: Melbourne House Hotel

Once again, I used to pretty much book all our hotels. As a result, our hotel in London, the Melbourne House Hotel, was perfectly nice. The location was cute, with the hotel standing on this quite, charming street (Belgrave) lined with white townhouse-like buildings.

It was a quiet neighborhood and the nearby metro (Pimlico) got us where we needed to go, not that we were very far from some of the major attractions. There were also several cute restaurants and cafes nearby (the other way from the metro stop though).

The room itself was not huge, but perfectly decent sized. Unfortunately, it was up six flights of stairs, but at least that meant we had a nice view over the nearby rooftops, to see the London Eye and Big Ben in the distance (ok, way in the distance):

Besides that, the bathroom was super clean, I had wireless internet access and the reception staff was very friendly and helpful. Overall, while this hotel isn’t right in the middle of all the action, I’d recommend it as a clean hotel not too far from the attractions at a very decent rate.

Last walking tour of London

To finish off our last day in London, we took a walking tour of some destinations I read about in a children’s book from the 50s. Hey, if they were famous attractions then, why wouldn’t they still be??

  • Drury Lane: we walked down this supposedly haunted lane, which was actually very quiet and cute. I wasn’t sure at the time where the haunting came from, but thanks to my good friend Google, I’ve learned that it’s actually the theater on Drury Lane that is haunted by ghosts, but that seeing a ghost is good luck for the actors.
Drury Lane
  • Olde Curiosity Shop: Apparently this shop was featured in a Charles Dickens novel, but unfortunately it was closed when we came to visit.

  • Fleet Street: where all London’s newspapers used to be printed back in the Golden Age of print.
  • Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: old, well-known pub in London. According to Wikipedia, there’s been a pub on this spot since 1538, and the Cheshire Cheese was the spot for literary figures like Mark Twain.

The British Museum

We saved the British Museum for our last day in London, and ended up spending a few hours there. It was definitely impressive to see how expansive the museum’s collection was (regardless of your feelings about how the museum came to possess these artifacts). My favorite exhibits were:

  1. Ancient Egyptian mummies & artifacts. No shocker here, but it was very cool to see the actual Rosetta Stone and the mummies (including the cat mummies, sorry Othello). It was, however, really annoying how crowded the area was.
  2. Assyrian lion hunt. This insane, multi-room stone mural depictes lion hunts the king participated in during a time when lions apparently became over-populated and were a threat to the people (or whatever the link says). It was interesting because of the story the mural told, but also becuase I really haven’t had the chance to see much Assyrian or Middle Eastern art before. I guess that’s also why I decided to splurge on a vase from Iran in the gift shop later on.
  3. Mayan bloodletting ritual. It was really interesting to learn about this ancient ritual where even women would do things like run a thorny rope through their tongues to invoke a spiritual vision. I won’t mention what the men would pierce, but you can read the link if you’re interested in the gruesome details.

Overall, I really liked the museum – not to mention that it’s FREE – but it was super annoying that photos were allowed. I realize people want to remember what is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and taking a few shots of really meaningful displays is fine, but in the end it seems like tourists are just focused on snapping shots of everything instead of enjoying the experience of looking at the actual exhibits. Not to mention that it causes havoc at popular exhibits (i.e. Egyptian mummies) where everyone’s just pushing and shoving to take a shot. Trust me, your photo is not going to come out that great, so if you really like an exhibit – just go buy a book about it with photos! Ok, that was my little rant.

London, day 3: feeling the pain

Day three was rough. Our bodies were definitely feeling the pain from our hardcore sightseeing, walking and stair climbing in London. I can’t even describe how sore we were. Just picture us hobbling through this entire day:

We got up “early” to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. We arrived 45 minutes early to get a good spot at the gate and waited. And waited. And the tourists crowded in. And it was HOT. The crowd grew and closed in around us, and you know how I feel about people. So after getting a couple photos of the guards who were waiting to be relieved, and standing and sweating in the crowd for a good 20 minutes, we called it quits. Rick Steves (or Steven Ricks as Daniela calls him) said the actual change was not that exciting anyways.

Tired Buckingham Palace guard waiting for the new guards to arrive

Luckily, as we were leaving, we came across the little parade that escorts the new guards coming to replace the current guards. I’m pretty sure this was actually the most exciting part of the whole ceremony anyways.

Parade escort for the new guards

Next up we headed towards Westminste Abbey, but first Daniela asked a policeman for directions:

To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect at Westminster Abbey, but it was really cool. The church was so jam-packed with tombs, monuments and ornate pieces. The cloister was really peaceful, and seeing the tombs of Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton was cool, but my favorite part was definitely Poets’ Corner. It was full of tombs of so many literary giants.

Next we walked up Whitehall to Trafalgar Square again, and on the way we met another guard:

We went to visit the National Gallery, which was free (woohoo). There were some interesting pieces, but not my favorite museum in the world. Then again, we were so physically exhausted that I probably wasn’t in prime museum-visiting mode.

We tried to relax by heading to Hyde Park. Unfortunately, that really only resulted in more walking. It was a nice park, though, with a big lake in the middle, surrounded by benches, a trail, cafes and even a mini beach. You could even rent paddle boats and paddle your little heart out in the lake. While our hearts were up for it, our little tired legs were not, so we just lay down on a bench for a tiny bit. I love visiting parks, they are for sure the most relaxing, free activity you could take advantage of in any city you’re exploring.

We set out on one more mission before we left Hyde Park: to find the Peter Pan statue. We found it!

Since we were in the neighborhood, we also decided to stop by Harrod’s in Knightsbridge. I definitely felt like I was dressed too bummy to even step into the store! And sadly, even though they were having a big annual sale, I still couldn’t afford anything! The joys of being unemployed, I guess.