London - My Preciousss! (part II)

I thought I would have trouble sleeping because of the jet lag but I fell asleep almost immediately and slept very well. I woke up around 6:30am, had breakfast and went to the bus station. The weather was nice and sunny. After a short wait we got on the bus and started our trip. Our first stop was the Windsor Castle. I was not that excited about the castle (I really wanted to see Stonehenge) but after our guide, Mel, told us we would spend almost 2 hours there I bought a ticket to go inside. The entry price is 15 pounds and there is a discount for students and seniors. So, if you are a student, don't leave your student card at home, like I did, it may save you a buck or two.

Windsor Castle, a thousand-year old fortress transformed into a castle, is the largest inhabited castle in the world and, dating back to the time of William the Conqueror, is the oldest in continuous occupation. This is the primary residence of the Queen. She calls the Buckingham Palace in London "the office" and considers the Windsor castle her home. It was interesting to learn that there were many security breaches but the most entertaining one was from 1982, when a young, mentally disturbed man, Michael Fagan, entered the palace and got into the queen's bedroom. The queen woke up to find the man sitting at the end of the bed smoking a cigarette and bleeding (he had cut his hand by breaking a crystal ashtray in the dark). The queen try to signal the security but remained calm and talk with the guy for some time. The man wanted simply to discuss his problems. The security eventually arrived 12 minutes after the queen's first signal. Another interesting fact was the castles were actually maintained by the royal family with their own money and they are not maintained by people's taxes. Very interesting.

Windsor Castle We arrived shortly. The weather was sunny, there was not a single cloud in the sky, just beautiful. We entered the castle and at that point we were left alone and were told to get back in one hour. This is something, which really impressed me and reminded me one more time that I am in Europe. I am pretty sure this cannot happen in USA (the guide to leave the tourists alone) because of liability issue and who knows what.

The castle was huge and ancient but in a very good shape. I was able to see the change of the guards or at least the first 10-15 minutes. The ceremony is pretty lengthy though interesting. A band marches in, followed by the new guards. They have a lead who aligns them in perfect lines and then exchanges one of two of his guards for the old guards. All this is accompanies by a lot of shouting and stumping. After a couple of guards are exchanged, the band plays a march, then a few more guards are exchanged and this keeps going on and on. I didn't have enough time to see the whole ceremony and I hurried inside the castle.

First, I went into the Dolls' Room and I saw the Queen Mary's Dolls' House, the most famous dolls' house in the world. It was pretty big with many details. It contains working lifts, running water and electricity, and took 1500 craftsmen three years to complete. Two dolls, France and Marianne, were displayed there as well. They were given to Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret by the French people in 1938. The dolls had hundreds of outfits and jewels, made by famous French jewelers and fashion designers and came with two mini versions of Citroen. Unfortunately, the princesses were not able to play much with the dolls as the WWII started and the dolls were shipped to Canada. Later, during and after the war the dolls were sent to different events and museums and the money from these exhibitions went to help to war victims' families.

I passed a small gallery with sketches by many famous artists, such as Leonardo de Vinci. I didn't spend a lot of time there, as the clock was ticking and there were so much more to see.

After the gallery I entered the other rooms and my jaw hit the floor. I am not a person who gets impressed by stuff, clothes, etc. but these rooms were amazing. There was so much glamour, so much wealth, so much history, and so much art collected in these rooms. It was breathtaking. I was looking around like a person who lived all of their life in a jungle and now was in a city. There were so many things, so many details to be looked at. And this was just a small portion of the castle. I laughed at myself being worried I would be bored in the castle. I wanted to stay for days. I was the last one to get back on the bus. Unfortunately, taking pictures was not allowed inside of the castle.

Stonehenge The ride to Stonehenge was longer (about 90 miles away from London) and I my jet lag was killing me. I was hardly able to keep my eyes open. I should have gotten more coffee. Damn! Somehow I managed to stay awake and eventually we arrived at Stonehenge. There were clouds in the sky. I was finally going to witness the "British" weather. I bought an audio tour for 6 pounds and headed towards the stones at the other side of the road. Honestly, I have always imagined the stones to be very tall 3-4 meters (9-12f) and I was a little disappointed. The mystery of its function and constuction, though, makes the trip totally worth it. The audio tour recorded information was a little too much for me. I guess I was tired and I found myself drifting away at several occasions. I made a full circle around the stones and I kept wondering - why would someone bring these stones in the middle of nowhere, arrange them in circle with astronomical accuracy? The stones are pretty heavy and it is believed that some of the stones were brought to their current location from Wales 5000 years ago! The vertical stones have little bumps and the horizontal stones - holes, so they fit together similar to lego pieces. How ingenious is this? Amazing. At the end of the tour the sun appeared from behind the clouds and lit the stones. The sunlit stones were really beautiful against the cloudy background. And I have missed the rain... again.

Oxford We got on the bus and continued to our final destination - Oxford. Oxford is England’s oldest university town and the earliest colleges date back to the 13th century. The University of Oxford comprises 38 Colleges (interesting) and 6 Permanent Private Halls of religious foundation, which are self-governed.

Martyr's Monument When we arrived Mel showed us around the town. The architecture is really unique and it makes your feel like you have travelled back in time or you are in a Harry Potter movie. In fact, many of the Hogwart's school scenes were filmed at Oxford University. We started at the Martyr's monument. It commemorates three Anglican bishops who were burned at the stake under Queen Mary in the 1550s: Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer, who were executed in Oxford on the orders of Queen Mary Tudor for their religious beliefs and teachings.

We saw the Hertford Bridge, which links two colleges together and looks like the "Bridge of Sighs" in Venice. There is a false legend saying that many decades ago, a survey of the health of students was taken, and as Hertford College's students were the heaviest, the college closed off the bridge to force them to take the stairs, giving them extra exercise.

After more than an hour in Oxford we got on the bus and headed back to London. It was already dark and the traffic was terrible. We arrived back at Victoria Station shortly after 7pm. I left my purchases at the hotel and hurried to Leicester Square where I was meeting a friend of mine for a movie. I decided to hop on the bus to save time as I was already late. This was a huge mistake. There was traffic, thousands of street lights and I arrived at the Odeon cinema with a huge delay. We saw Dorian Gray and after the movie we talked and caught up on our lives. Little did I know that several blocks away was Gerard Butler parting with some friends.

I got back in the hotel around 1am. The receptionist told me the check-out time was 9:30am. What? It turned out they had released my room in the morning because I didn't confirm I was staying the third night. Shoot. I didn't know what to do. It was too late to look for a room elsewhere. The guy told me not to worry as someone might cancel and free up a room. Yes, "I should not worry. I should stay positive. Everything will be alright", I thought and went to my room.

London - My Preciousss! (part I)


I went to London for the first time in the summer of 2001. I had a connection flight the next day and decided to go sightseeing. I took the Underground's Piccadilli line from Heathrow to the city center. At some point, near Heathrow, the line went above the ground and I saw England for the first time in my life. The sun was shining, we were passing by some old, white, brick buildings with small windows... and at that very moment something happened. I felt this overwhelming feeling of serenity, in a way I felt "in place". I am not sure how to describe it or explain it but ever since then when I am in London, I feel exhilarated and I have the same feeling of rightness. I have been to many places but I have never experienced anything like that, not even close.

I needed a break this year and my immediate choice was London. I bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel in Westminster (near Victoria station and all main attractions) to have more time to wander about. I read some really bad reviews about the hotel the evening before I left on my trip. I got really worried. What kind of a dump I was going to? It was too late to cancel and the penalty fee was 60 pounds. There was nothing much I could do. Even, if I booked something else, how could I know what I was really booking. I decided to figure out what to do when I got there. Not a good start of my trip.

I arrived in London around 3pm local time on 11/25/2009. I went to the hotel and asked the receptionist to check out earlier. I made up some lame excuse I might be staying with friends. He said, it was too late to cancel the first two nights, but should be OK for the third one. I paid for two nights and agreed to let him know if I'd be staying the third night by the next morning. I went into my room, prepared to see dead rat bodies and cockroaches, etc. but the room was pretty decent. The sheets were clean, the heater was on, the windows were double-windows, so the noise was minimal. It was small, sure, but I didn't need a bigger one. I was glad I did not cancel. I was tired but I wanted to see London as soon as possible. I left my luggage and went out.

I had to locate the Victoria bus station first. I was taking a trip outside of London the next day and I had to find the departing spot. I didn't want to miss it. It was one block away from the hotel. Nice. Next to the bus station, I saw a GSM and Internet store and went inside. I needed an adapter for my gadgets. They had one and I also made a deal on a GSM card. Great, I had a UK number. :). I went back to the hotel, left my purchases and went out again. The weather was warm for the season, around 10C (50F) and there were a lot of people in the streets. Just the way I like it.

I took Victoria St and arrived at the Westminster Abbey. I stopped and looked at the Gothic building. It is incredible how much history there is in this building. It was build ten centuries ago and almost all of the British kings and monarchs were crowned in that building, the first ones being King Harold and William the Conqueror back in 1066. The coronation throne, on which the kings sit during the coronation process, is used since 1308. I cannot even comprehend such an old chair. Amazing.

I passed by the Houses of Parliament and stopped at the Westminsters Bridge. I have always liked and enjoyed the way the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are lit at night and how they reflect on the water. I remembered a quote from one of the Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel about the Ankh river, a parody of the Thames - "It has been said that the Ankh is the only river in the multiverse where cops can draw a chalk outline when a corpse is found". I smiled. It was not that bad, not even close. And I noticed for the first time, how wide the river actually was. It's more than 200 meters wide at this point, very impressive.

I crossed the bridge and continued towards the London Eye. It was lit up as well and looked beautiful. I was not very impressed the first time I took a ride on the London Eye. I was excited the first 10 mins. After I saw London, I was ready to get off, however I had to stay in the capsule for 20 more mins. I bet the experience would be different at night. I decided to take a ride at night next time. There were craftsmen next to the London Eye selling original arts, ceramics, etc. "The Hammer song" was playing and several people were singing along. Gosh! I haven't heard this song in ages. I caught myself singing as I crossed the Hungerford bridge. I passed by the packed Sherlock Holmes' pub and arrived at the Trafalgar's square.

Unfortunately, the Christmas tree was not there yet. Every year the Norwegians sent a Christmas tree to London in return to British support during the WW II. I had to see that. I made another note to myself to come back for Christmas. I headed to the Piccadilly Circus. There were Starbucks shops on every corner and I was not very thrilled. I am a huge Starbucks fan and a coffee addict, but that was a little too much, perhaps. I spent some time in Trocadero. I saw some hilarious t-shirts. Some of the prints were really fresh and really made me laugh. The Piccadilly Circus was as busy as ever. There were people from all over the world, the restaurants and cafes were full, everyone was headed in a different dirrection. The city seemed so alive and full of energy. I really appreciated that moment, I must have missed the commotion.
It was almost 9 o'clock, I was feeling pretty tired and I decided to go back to the hotel... but not before I check on the Queen.

I took the Mall Street and not long after I was in front of the Buckingham Palace. There were a lot of cars passing by and some of them were even honking! I was very surprised. No wonder, the Queen calls it "the office" and complains it is noisy. The Union flag was up, she must be resting in her castle.

I went back to the hotel. It was time for me to rest, as well.

Paris - A Romantic Illusion (part III)


My last day in Paris. I had planned to see a few places close to the hotel and train station. Before checking out of the hotel, I decided to go to the Sacre Coeur, the white domed basilica at Montmartre, which was very closed to the hotel. I stopped to buy a coffee and started climbing up the highest hill in Paris (130m). I had walked for about 5 minutes when I realized I had forgotten my camera. Bummer! I went back to the hotel and decided to check out and not worry about time. The hotel manager allowed me to leave my bag in the lobby of the hotel (my train was at 6:40pm).

I restarted my journey and reached the basilica in less than 10 minutes. I found out there were countless steps to get to the actual building and started climbing. There were a lot of black guys, braiding friendship bracelets for tourists. They tried to convince me to get one, but I walked away. Sorry, not interested. When I climbed the 200 steps, I looked back. The view was amazing. I could see the whole Paris, though some trees were blocking the view to the Eiffel Tower. I went inside and sat for a couple of minutes. My legs were a mess. I looked at the Parisian museums guide and found out the Napoleon's tomb could be seen in the Musee Les Invalids, the one I passed by so many times and so many times ignored. I wanted to see the tomb. The museum was in the opposite direction of my planned stops. I decided I had plenty of time to go there as well and left the basilica.

While climbing down the stairs, I decided to get a friendship bracelets. I had to bargain for a while though. Initially, they asked for 10 euros. I laughed and said I would pay only 1 euro. A guy appeared from somewhere, who knew several words in English. He told me they charged 5 euros for a bracelet and 1 was too low. "5", I said "he just asked for 10". Eventually, I agreed to pay 2 euros. I wanted specific colors and somehow I managed to explain this in French. I was happy by that fact. The guy had to find the colors from other guys and this caused a little commotion. While he was braiding my bracelet, we started talking in French. Well, he was talking, I was struggling to figure out what he was saying. Somehow, we managed to understand each other. His name was Hassan, he was born in Paris and never been abroad. He wanted to get my phone number, email, etc. The guy, who spoke English, reappeared again. He tried to help with the translation but we have really managed to understand each other. He asked for my phone number or email, as well, and offered to accompany me so we could get to know each other better. I declined and left.

I went to Gare du Nord. I wanted to see if I could leave my bag there for a few hours. I was not comfortable with my bag being in the lobby of the hotel, close to the front door. I did not want to have any problems the last day of my trip, not to mention my ticket was in the bag. I found out there were lockers and went back to the hotel. It was after 1:30pm when I locked my bag in the locker and left the train station. I headed to the Musee Les Invalides.

On my way to the museum I passed along Rue de la Paix, packed with jewelry and diamond stores. It was really interesting. The street led me to the Place Vendome, a really nice square with expensive hotels (Ritz) and stores. I was not sure why, but I imagined this place at night. There was an ice rink and people were skating. It was a nice and yet strange vision. I crossed the river and I arrived at Les Invalides, which houses the Musee de l'Armee.

I went to the Musee de l'Armee. There were a lot of weapons, armors, uniforms. I was not able to find an English guide, only a French one. Too bad. I quickly walked through the rooms and went to see the Napoleon's tomb, located in a chapel close by. The chapel had a stunning door and dome. The Napoleon's tomb was huge - a burgundy sarcofagus, placed on a green granite pedestal. It was so huge it occupied two floors (there was an opening on the ground floor that looked over the sarcfagus). There was a really nice sculpture of Napoleon, as well. In fact everything - the architecture, the tomb, the setting - was stunning. However, it was 3pm and I had to leave.

Since the Rodin museum was closed by, I decided to quickly check it out. It was closed and I continued on my way. A wrong turn (no surprise) took me to the French Academy and Paris Mint. I crossed the river and arrived at Notre Dame. I was tempted by the idea to get on the roof of the cathedral but reconsidered. I was at the top of the Arch of Triumph, Eiffel Tower, Sacre Coeur, no point to stay in line. It was 4pm and I was really tired. I continued towards the Place de la Bastille. I was excited to see the famous prison and check out the area. I was a little disappointed by the area as the buildings were in the same boring style. At last, I arrived at the square, where the French Revolution began. I sat on a bench and checked my notes. Very disappointed but somehow not surprised, I found out that the Bastille was completely demolished. A tall column was standing in the center of the square celebrating the Revolution of 1830, which established the constitutional monarchy.

It was time to leave. On my way to the train station, I passed by the Place de la Republique, another square in Paris with a very confusing intersection. I reached the train station just before the rain poured down. I took my bag and got on the train. It left few minutes later. I was not sad I was leaving.

I had a completely wrong concept of Paris and this perhaps influenced my judgment and opinion. I am sure Paris appeals and will continue to appeal to many people. It has a lot to offer, both as culture and history (mostly post 1879). However, I was not able to connect with Paris and I did not find the commotion, energy, or restlessnes I expected to find in a big European city. Au revoir, Paris!

Click here to see a map of my trip.

Paris - A Romantic Illusion (part II)


I was excited about my second day in Paris. My plan was to visit the most famous museums and attractions. Almost all of the museums are open until 6pm, so I did not waste time in the hotel and headed towards the Louvre to see the original Mona Lisa painting. It was raining and I was glad most of my planned activities were indoors.

There was a little bakery at the corner next to my hotel and I decided to reward myself with a chocolate croissant - I walked for hours the previous day after all. A quick note, I can always think of a convincing reason or a good excuse to treat myself with chocolate. I went inside and confident in my French said "un croissant au chocolate". The woman looked at me resentfully, which really confused me, and let me know there was no such thing as "croissant au chocolate" (not true), it was either "croissant" or "pain au chocolate". Whatever, just shut up and give me my croissant. I paid and quickly went outside to try it (there were no tables and chairs inside). I was thrilled to taste the real thing, made in France, by a French person. It would be perfect. I closed my eyes, prepared myself to go to heaven and took a bite. I was in hell. This could not possibly be a chocolate croissant. The flour was darker than the croissant flour and the taste was awkward, not terrible but strange and not appealing. I was very, very disappointed. I forced myself to eat it.

I reached the Louvre, went inside, grabbed a map, found the location of the Mona Lisa painting (room 6), and headed straight there to take a picture before my camera battery died or they closed the museum for some reason, or whatever. I wanted to make sure I'd see the painting no matter what. I must have hold the map the wrong way or turned the wrong way because I ended up in the opposite wing. Bummer! I passed through dozens of galleries before I got to the correct wing. On the way, I spent some time in front of two of the Leonardo's paintings - The Virgin of the Rocks and the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. His style is really unique and captivating.

I finally made it to the Mona Lisa gallery. As expected, there was a crowd in front of it. The painting itself was behind a tick glass. I took at least a dozen pictures of the Gioconda but not a single one of them came out right, always blurry, or out of focus, probably because of the glass reflection. There were a couple of decent ones, so I left and started touring the rest of the galleries. There are thousands of paintings in the Louvre - different artists, different periods, different styles, different themes. I don't think it is possible a person to see everything within a day or even two. I ended up walking through the galleries, scanning the pictures, and only stopping in front of the ones which caught my eye. The description below the paintings was in French only. So, if you decide to learn more about a painting you need to remember or take a note of the artist and painting names and do your own research later. I quickly scanned the numerous sculptures, taking pictures of the most famous ones - Venus Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Nude Mary Magdalene. I spent around 3 hours in the Louvre and my legs were already tired. I left and walked towards my next item on the list - the Conciergerie.

The Conciergerie is located on the Ile de la Cite, a small island in the Seine, considered to be the birthplace of Paris. It was originally build as a palace, then turned into a prison, where prisoners were kept before being decapitated on the guillotine, and now was used for juridical purposes. Some of its famous prisoners were Marie Antoinette and Robespierre. During the French Revolution, more than 2700 people were imprisoned here and later executed. Around 40 people were guillotined per day. I tried to imagine this slaughter house, but it was just too gross, all the blood, heads, bodies. Yuk! The weather was still pretty nasty. The wind was so strong that there were moments I thought the rain was falling horizontally. Finally, I got there and went inside.

There was a modern art exhibition in the main hall with very strange items - a glass sculpture of something that looks like a table and at close inspection turns out to be a horse, but the head is on the top flat surfice, about 20-30 ghosts with grotesque faces, bodies that look like a scientific experiment (3 legs, no head). Weird, too weird for me, so I concentrated on the historical part of the building. It was interesting to learn prisoners were allowed to buy better conditions. In other words, the prisoner may chose to stay in a very small cell, no beds, only straw on the floor and share it with other people; or he may pay to stay into a cell with a bed and share with only one person; or pay for a single room with bed, table, and chair. Amazing. There was a replica of the Marie Antoinette's cell. It was bigger than the rest of the cells and had furniture as well. There was nothing else to see and it was time for the next item on my list - the Sainte-Chapelle.

The Sainte-Chapelle is located next to the Conciergerie. The chapel was build in the 13th century to house multiple relics of Christ (the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross). I was a little surprised to find out the chapel was not demolished during the French Revolution. I guessed, the French preserved the religious buildings during those crazy times. Later, I found out the chapel actually suffered extensive damage during the revolution and was later restored. The unique thing about this chapel are the stained-glass windows, which are very beautiful and colorful. A lovely chapel. My next stop - the Notre Dame cathedral.

The Notre Dame cathedral is on the Ile de la Cite as well, about 5 mins away from the Sainte-Chapelle. The building, which is in Gothic style is decorated with many statues and ornaments. All distances in France are measured from the cathedral. It was damaged during the French Revolution as well. Later, after Victor Hugo wrote his novel the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the interest in the cathedral was renewed and it was restored. Napoleon was crowned as an Emperor in this cathedral. There was an event or service going on and the square and cathedral were crowded. At least 20 priests, dressed in purple chasubles, entered the cathedral. I heard there was a way to go to the top of the cathedral from one of the sides and I went out to find it. There was a pretty big line and I had to wait for at least 40 mins. The rained has stopped, yet I preferred to see more sites. I changed my mind and continued with my sightseeings.

I crossed the bridge and arrived in the Latin Quarter. It turned to be a very nice and interesting area. The atmosphere was much different than the rest of Paris and the streets and buildings were closer to my original idea/vision of Paris. I was sorry I didn't have more time to spend in this area. I passed by the Sorbonne, the Paris University, and arrived to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon resembles a Greek temple. It was originally build as a church and was converted to a burial place after the Revolution. A lot of famous Frenchmen are buried there: Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emil Zola, Marie and Pierre Curie. Alexandre Dumas was moved to the Pantheon in 2002, as well. The interior was really impressive. The Foucault pendulum was installed in the middle of the building hanging from the dome. Foucault demonstrated for the first time the rotation of Earth without the usage of astronomical observations at this very spot. I was not sure if I was looking at the original pendulum or not but I didn't care. The pendulum kept swinging slowly and somehow importantly. I visited the crypt as well. As time was flying by, I headed towards the next museum on my list.

I was pretty tired already. My legs were killing me but I knew I didn't have any time to waste and walked on as fast as I could. I passed through the Jardin du Luxembourg, the largest public park in France. Everything was green with beautiful flower decorations. It must be really beautiful during the spring or summer when the sun is shining and the trees are green. I saw the Luxembourg Palace, located in the gardens, originally built for Marie de Medici and currently housing the French Senate. I visited the St-Germain-des-Pres church, the oldest one in Paris build in 542 and probably one of the few places spared during the French Revolution. The abbey around it, however, was leveled to the ground. It was almost 5 o'clock, time was running out, so I went inside, looked around, and hurried towards the museum. Finally, I made it to the Musee d'Orsay. It was 5 mins to 5pm and the museum was closing at 6pm. Perfect.

Musee d'Orsay is a museum for French art, where works of famous artists like Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Gauguin can be seen. There are also sculptures by Rodin, though he has his own museum. The interior of the museum was unusual and later I found out it used to be a train station. I walked through the galleries, looked at the paintings and at 5:30pm my legs gave up. I had to sit. I had been abusing my legs for 7 hours now and when I thought about it I hadn't stopped even for a second. The museum was closing in more than 30 minutes, I had already visited most of the galleries, so I decided to sit for 10 mins. I just got back on my feet when they announced the museum would be closing in 20 mins. Great, I thought, and continued browsing. One of the personnel came to me and told me the museum was closed and I had to leave. I looked around and indeed the museum personnel were showing the visitors to the exit. I guessed the museum had to be actually closed (everybody out) by 6pm, not just closed for visitors. So, keep this in mind and plan accordingly.

I was out in the streets again. It was 6pm, which meant that all the museums were closed. I did pretty good for one day. I saw numerous pieces of art, learned a lot about French history and culture. It was time to visit the French icon - the Eiffel Tower. A short walk took me there. It is really enormous and magnificent. There was a long, long line for tickets. Unfortunately, the entry for the Eiffel Tower was not included in the museum pass. If you plan to enter the tower, try to buy a ticket online, it will save you a lot of time and frustration. It was cold, windy, and my stomach kept reminding me I was hungry and had to eat. I got to the ticket counter after an hour and bought a ticket to the third level. Then, I had to wait for the lift to the second level in another line. The lift came and and I got inside. Somehow I ended up next to the windows and when the lift started climbing up along one of the tower legs, I faced the ground. I do not consider myself a person afraid of heights but this were pretty scary, having in mind the tower was built more than 100 years ago and looking at the safety nets all over the place. I started wondering if I really wanted to go to the third level. The lift finally stopped, 115m above the ground. The view of Paris was great. I tried to ignore the tiredness, hunger, and cold and went around the level looking at night Paris. At the end, I decided to go to the third level and took the lift. I may be exaggerating a little but it seemed to me I was in the elevator for at least 1 minute. It was going up and up and up and finally it stopped, 276m above the ground. The third level was enclosed by glass, which stopped the wind and promised some security. I spent some time there, then saw some stairs, which led me to the roof. No doubt this was the winds' meeting place. I took another look at Paris and hurried inside. I was really tired and hungry and decided to leave. I had to stand in line for the lift down for at least 10 more minutes. It was close to 8:30pm when I left the tower.

I crossed the bridge and passed by a booth selling crepes. I did not want to have a crepe for dinner but I had to eat something. It turned out I made the right decision buying this crepe because I did not find an open cafe or restaurant on my way back to the hotel. The crepe was nice and warm and gave me some extra energy. Feeling a little better, I decided to visit the Arch of Triumph, as well. It was open until 11pm and on my way. I got there and climbed the 284 steps to get to the roof. Later, I found out there was a lift, grrrr. Though only 50 meters high, the roof offered really nice views towards Champs-Elysees and the Eiffel Tower. Exhausted, I climbed down the countless steps and slowly dragged myself towards the hotel.

The streets were empty, the stores were closed (it was late and Sunday), and there were no people. I looked up at the buildings and saw that most of the windows were dark. Where was everybody? Paris looked like a ghost town except for the cars. Very, very strange. I found a little store, still open, near Place de Clichy and bought water. I was almost at my hotel when I remembered this was my last night in Paris and my only chance to see the red-light district, which was a block away. There were a few sex shops, couple of cinemas, and erotic underwear shops. I did not see any working women. I decided they didn't work on Sundays or in the evening, as any other Frenchmen, and went back to the hotel.

Click here to see a map of my trip.

Paris - A Romantic Illusion (part I)


Paris. The city of love. The city I wanted to go to since I was a child. I was in love with Alexandre Dumas' books - The Three Musketeers, Count Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, to name a few. These books used to take me away into a fairy tale world, a world full of adventure and intrigues, honor and glory, romance and glamour. Since then France has always held a special place in my heart.

Finally, I was able to go to Paris. I could stay for only 3 days, which is not enough time for a major city like Paris, but I decided to go anyways. I wanted to walk the streets of Paris, feel the romance in the air, feel the spirit of the city offering so much history and culture. And later on, whenever fate permits, go back and stay longer.

I took the eurostar train and arrived at Gare du Nord in Paris on Nov 28 around 3:30pm local time. It was cloudy but not cold and I decided to walk to my hotel, which was about 10 mins away from the train station. I believe one gets a different experience while walking around compared to driving and getting off the car, bus, etc. at the points of interest. So, Paris, here I come...

I walked out of the station and... I was not impressed. I might have been in any other city, not a trace from Paris. I know areas around train stations are not good, so I ignored this first impression and hurried towards the hotel to check-in, and see the real Paris. While walking, I started looking at the buildings. Most of the buildings were 5-6 stories high and though each one of the buildings was unique in a way, had unique ornaments for example, the style and color were pretty much the same (this is known as the Haussmann style, Haussmann is the guy who redesigned Paris). I quickly got bored and started looking at the people in the street just in time to see a man in his 50s urinating next to a parked car. I looked away hoping he was doing something else and hurried on.

I got to my hotel, checked-in, left my luggage, took a map, and was off in the streets in no time. The first item on my list of things to see was Moulin Rouge, the famous cabaret. It was just around the corner from my hotel, so I made a turn and... stared. There was this small and modest building with a red windmill on the top. I blamed my high expectations for the ruined moment and decided to stay realistic and simply enjoy things the way they were and not compare them with visions, dreams, etc. Hoping Moulin Rouge will improve at night, I continued towards the next item on my list - the Opera house.

On my way I passed by the Eglise de la Trinite, the site of Hector Berlioz's funeral. Unfortunately, the church was closed and I was not able to get inside. The church seemed to be like a breath of fresh air, at least it looked different, and I impatiently hurried on. Oh-oh, then it started to rain. I refused to open my new pocket-size umbrella for several minutes but eventually I had to. The umbrella still had the price tag, which was attached to the fabric with a plastic wire. Great, now I had to find scissors. I passed by a Sephora store, decided that the chance of finding scissors there was pretty high, and I went inside. Of course, no one spoke English, and I had to explain what I need using the few French words I know. I said "Avez-vous... " (do you have), then hand-gestured "scissors" and showed them the umbrella. Surprisingly, they understood me, helped me out, and I, thrilled by my French skills, continued on my way.

I got to the Opera in a couple of minutes. The famous opera, which enormous chandelier fell at some point, killed a person, and inspired the Phantom of the Opera story. I stayed in the square for several minutes admiring the building, thinking of the Phantom of the Opera musical, the movie, Gerry Butler... It was getting dark, so I forced myself to stop daydreaming and went to see the infamous chandelier. Of course, the opera was closed and I continued towards the next item on my list - the Louvre.

Along the way, I found a tourist information center and bought a 2-day museum pass for 32 euros. It sounds a lot, but it turned out to be a very good investment. So, if you go to Paris, I really recommend it. The average museum entry fee for an adult in Paris is 9 euros. I ended visiting at least 5 or 6 museums. The pass also saves you time because you don’t have to stay in the ticket line. I also needed an US-European adapter for my camera and cell phone and I was referred me to the store next door. I went to the store and not being able to find an English speaking person, I blurted out "Avez-vous adapter?" (I tried to make "adapter" sound French). The guy at the cash register looked at me and pointed to the ceiling. I went to the second floor and found adapters. I am so good in French. They did not have the type I needed and I tried to ask the passing-by assistant. She looked at me and, I am guessing, decided not to bother with another foreigner, turned around and walked away. I was a little confused but decided to follow her since there was not anyone else. Eventually, she stopped and started talking with another woman. I stopped next to them, not too close to bother them but close enough to make sure she was aware I was waiting. She looked at me again, sighed, removed her badge, put it in her pocket, and continued her conversation. I stood there for a moment trying to digest what just happened, then got angry, and walked away. Hm, maybe next time I go to a country where they don't speak English, I should learn at least the words to express my feelings in such situations.

I reached the Place du Carrousel, the square in front of the Louvre, few minutes later. The Louvre is a huge and magnificent building and yes, I was impressed. The controversial pyramid entry in front of the Louvre was really looking out of place but somehow it made the place more special, intriguing, even mystical. Without it, the Louvre would continue to impress, but the pyramid or the pyramids to be exact, increased the effect significantly. I caught myself thinking what I would do, if I were the architect. I would probably design something similar in style to the surrounding buildings, which would look nice, but wouldn't have the same effect. Very interesting and unusual decision. I had to go, but the Louvre museum was the first item on my next day's list.

Thrilled, I turned around and I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance, lit in yellow. Oh, Las Vegas, Las Vegas. Yet another ruined moment. I had a feeling I was standing in front of the Bellagio fountains looking at the Paris casino. I tried to get Las Vegas out of my head and looked again at the Eiffel Tower waiting for my brain to process the sight of the famous structure and produce some kind of reaction. Nothing, I was totally unmoved. I crossed the Jardien dus Tuilleries, which was a little challenging since it was raining and I kept trying to find the least muddy spot to step on. I remember reading a sign (must have been in English) that the Tuilleries Palace used to be in these gardens but it was burnt down and destroyed after the French Revolution. Pity, it must have been a nice one.

I found myself on the Place de la Concorde, a really big and busy square. I looked at my notes and learned that there used to be a Louis XV statue, which was torn down after the Revolution (hmmm…) and the guillotine was erected there. The first notable person to be executed was Louis XVI. I tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who lived in Paris 200+ years ago. I could probably understand why they demolished everything related to monarchy and their excitement and hopefulness for a better future. However, the voluntary witnessing of events where people are hurt or dismembered is beyond my comprehension. I even tried not to think there were people who actually enjoyed that. Later, the guillotine was replaced by a huge Egyptian obelisk. Isn't it a little strange that there are so many Egyptian symbols around - the pyramids in front of the Louvre, now the obelisk? Maybe the architect was inspired by the obelisk… Interesting.

I turned around and saw a building which looked like a Greek temple. I was not sure what this building was so I went there and found out it was a church - La Madeleine. There was a service inside and I sat down for a few minutes to rest. Something happened while I was there and I found it really amusing. I want to apologize in advance to all French speaking people for the next story. Really, nothing personal, just wanted to mention it in case someone else experience something similar while in a French speaking country. I was sitting in the church, looking at the map, the priest was talking, and everyone else was sitting quietly and listening. And then, out of the blue, I heard this chocking sound coming from the priest. My heart jumped, I looked up. The priest was still talking and the people were listening to him. I guess, he had said something in French which produced this chocking sound. :). Again, I am not saying this to insult anyone, just to warn people not to assume someone is dying when they hear a chocking sound near by. Time to go. I headed back to the Place de la Concorde, excited to see the infamous avenue - Champs-Elysees.

The trees in the street were decorated with blue lights, which really gave Champs-Elysees a distinctive look. I was surprised to find merchants selling souvenirs, crepes, and other random stuff to tourists. The sidewalk itself was not completely paved and I often found myself walking in the mud. I was very confused. What is going on here? Is that it? I kept walking and soon the merchants disappeared and the street turned into a normal looking street with shiny stores on each side of the street. Nice. I start looking around at the luxury and elegant stores to find names like Adidas, Gap, Sephora, a few dealerships and cinemas. I tried to ignore the evil voice inside my head, chanting "a local mall, a local mall". Several performers were trying to impress the tourists. The atmosphere was not much different than the one on the 3rd street in Santa Monica. I can't say Champs-Elysees was a disappointment because I was able to buy an adapter from the Virgin megastore. Eventually, the street ended and I faced the Arch of Triumph.

The Arch of Triumph is really an impressive and colossal structure, and built after the Revolution (surprised?). There is a way to get on the roof of the Arch but I decided to leave this activity for the next day. Here's the place to mention something that kept bothering me the whole time I was in Paris. Paris was redesigned during Napoleon time. Napoleon wanted to make Paris the most beautiful city in Europe and the whole world. That's the time when most of the same-looking building were built. Twelve of the main boulevards end up in front of the Arch of Triumph, something really appreciated by the Nazi during the WWII. Because of this street organization, there are many intersections with 5 or more streets. It is impossible to guess if the street you are on continues right in front of you, or turns slightly to the right, or the left. I often found myself gazing at the map, trying to figure out in what direction to continue. Another annoying thing is that streets change their names without any obvious reason. Very, very confusing.

I took one of the avenues and headed towards Trocadero. After a short walk I was there. The place offers a great view towards the Eiffel Tower and this time being so closed I was wowed by its size and the Las Vegas version started looking like a toy, though half the size of the original. There was a light show, the color of the lights illuminating the tower were changing creating different patterns, and I stayed and watched for several minutes. The show was not breathtaking but still something nice and interesting to see. I was feeling pretty tired now but headed towards the last item on my list - the Statue of Liberty at Pont de Grenelle.

I've noticed that the streets were getting deserted, there were fewer and fewer people in the streets. It was almost 10pm but still early for a Saturday night. There was the occasional person here and there walking their dog. This turned out to be pretty common in Paris. Btw. owners are supposed to clean after their pets but they don't always do, so watch your step. Eventually, after a 30-min walk, I was in front of the statue. I may be wrong but this statue seemed smaller than the one in New York or may be the one in New York is placed on a higher pedestal. I am not sure what the problem was but something was off. There were boats with tourists which went around the statue pretty quickly without even slowing down. It looked to me they were performing a magical trick - "now you see it, now you don't". I don’t recommend taking a boat to see the replica, just walk there.

It was time to go back. I started dragging myself along the deserted streets wondering where everyone was. In case you wonder, I did not get scared. You know how sometimes you get the spooky feeling of someone watching you when you walk in a deserted street. Well, I didn't get this feeling. It felt more like everyone knew of a party and went there and I was the only one left behind. I passed by the Musee des Invalides, the National Assembly, Place de la Concorde. I started seeing more people as I approached my hotel, which was in an area famous for its night life. I passed by a couple of guys who said something I did not understand and kept walking. Another guy caught up with me and started talking to me in French. I told him I didn't speak French and he switched to English. He tried to translate what the guys had said, something related to Christmas?, but his English was as good as my French so I'd never know. It turned out he was going in my direction, so we walked together for a while, going over the numbers in French - 81, 82, 83, 100… I was pretty close to the hotel when he suggested we go for a drink. I don't think so, I said to myself. I told him I was tired. He asked for my phone number or some other way to contact me. I guess he accepted the rest of my excuses because he eventually shrugged and said "well, maybe some other time". He tried to kiss me goodbye and I jumped away. "Are you married?" he asked. "No". "Then what's the problem?". It was my turn to shrug. I entered the hotel thinking "What's the problem?", "What's my problem?". He was a nice-looking guy.

Click here to see a map of my trip.

Let's get started

I like to travel. I like to visit new places, talk with the people who live there and learn about their culture and customs. I found out one might learn more about a place by spending 10-15 mins with a native/local person than by reading guides, history books, etc. Every experience is unique, filled with a lot of emotions and impressions, and usually I feel enriched and energized when I get back home. Unfortunately, as time goes by, the details of the trips start to fade away and eventually turn into a gray memory instead of staying the vivid and colorful experiences they were.

That's the main reason I decided to start this blog. I also hope that some of the posts will give people an idea where to go or not go and what to do when they visit a place for the first time.

I will describe the places as I've seen and experienced them, so what you'll read is my point of view. Every person has different norms, so the chances of you stumbling on something you disagree with are pretty high. In such case, don't get offended or frustrated, this blog is for fun and is not meant to hurt anyone's feeling, simply leave a comment explaining yourself.