Belgium & Paris

Before moving to Australia, I decided to take a solo journey to Paris and visit my friend in Belgium along the way. It turns out that a family friend was to be in Paris at the same time, to attend a wedding, so I was asked to be the guest of this wonderful wedding along the Seine!

June 14, 2010

For the past week, I have been visiting family on the East Coast in New Jersey and Philadelphia. It was a blast to see everyone and spend time with them before my big move to Australia.. On Sunday, I headed to Brussels (Background: one of my best friends from elementary school lives in Belgium. She is getting married later this year and I will not be able to attend the wedding, so I am visiting with her now). I arrived in Brussels at 8:30am on Monday, and breezed through customs. I didn’t even have to fill out a declaration form, no one checked my bags nor did they ask any questions. I followed signs to the train (in the basement). To make a long story short, even though I showed the guy in the ticket booth my itinerary with the exact train and destination that I want (Liege), he sold me a ticket to Ghent! Maybe he thought it would be funny to dupe the young American (I don’t know what else he would’ve gained)… I figured out halfway to Ghent that I’m headed in the opposite direction and there’s no way to transfer back until I reach Ghent. $15 and an hour lost to correct the error (plus phone charges to tell my friend that I would be late), but at least I got to see some of the Belgian countryside! I’m sure many people would’ve been more than a little upset with all that traveling takes out of you, and being tired/hungry, but I didn’t let it ruin my day.

My friend told me that she lived in a renovated barn… So, I expected some cheesy little place with lots of land. Boy, was I wrong. The old farm house is 4 levels – 3 bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, and very modern. 2 story glass windows overlook the property and exposed stonework/wood beams create a nice mix of the old and new…

June 15, 2010

On Tuesday, we went to Maastrict, Netherlands, a quaint town very close to her house in Aubel, Belgium. We had lunch at a cafe, tried not to breathe second-hand smoke, and shopped mostly for shoes for her wedding. Then came back and made dinner with her fiance, drank some Belgian beer that is brewed in an old church nearby, and played some ping-pong. Usually, I only get to spend 1 day with my friend and the entire time is spent catching up on each others lives. It is really nice to be able to spend more time with her so we can get past that and just hang out as friends the way we used to.

June 16, 2010

On Wednesday, we took the train to Brussels to explore the city. The first chocolate shop I ran into happened to be my favorite chocolate – Valrhona (French Chocolate). The chocolate shop I worked at during college used Valrhona chocolate to make our specialty flavor-infused delicacies. Apparently the Brussels location is their first and only store in the entire world, and it had just opened! So it was lucky that I stumbled upon it. We ate Belgian Fries near the Grand’Place/Grote Markt and then went in search of two famous fountains. Manneken Pis and Jeanneke Pis (Little Boy pissing and Little Girl pissing, respectively). The latter is lesser known and was harder to find as it is down an alley of restaurants lined with disgusting men who shouted various over-the-top compliments at us. I was told that the little boy fountain is smaller than expected, but I was more disappointed to see that he was wearing a little costume. I guess they are featuring traditional Belgian costumes this month on the little “mannequin”. We walked to the BELvue Museum, which has the history of Belgium. Although the content was not the most interesting, the museum was very well done which made it entertaining and enlightening. I’d say it was worth no more than the 3 Euro that we were charged for telling them we were under age 25. From there, we walked to the Palace of Justice and then the Porte de Hal. We really wanted to see the Royal Greenhouse at Laeken, so we took a subway out to the park, but learned that just like the Royal Palace Grounds, the Greenhouse is only open for a few weeks out of the year (not this week). Disappointed and tired, we sat on the grass and ate some chocolate, while staring at the Atomium (read: Giant Silver Balls built for the world fair in 1958). Then we headed back to the historical downtown for some Greek food before taking the train back home.

June 17, 2010

Thursday, we went to a local cafe/bakery for some brunch, then hit up one more store in town for wedding shoes and found the perfect pair!! I was so excited to feel involved in the process to get her ready for her wedding. We took the Autoban to Cologne, Germany. There, I got to meet her fiance’s brother for about 10 minutes before he headed off to a meeting. We spent the rest of the day with his brother’s boyfriend… I was very glad to meet both of them, and even more excited that they were very nice! We walked along the Rhine River, and went to the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) which was Gothic, dark and beautiful. Then we had some coffee before heading back. In the evening, we had a BBQ with her fiance’s parents and took a nice sunset stroll through the field…

June 18-25, 2010

Today, I said my goodbyes to my friend, then took the train from Liege to Paris. Found my way through the train station to the subway without any problem and hopped on the #4 for Raspail. My hotel is only a block from the subway stop and despite having NO signage, I found it easily. 26 years ago, my mom traveled to Paris alone and stayed at this very same hotel. She returned with my dad and sister on my sister’s 9 year old Europe trip. So, I guess I am completing the circle, in a way. Once I was settled into my hotel (about 4pm), I looked through my tour book and decided to head up to Montmartre area for the early evening. I hiked up the steps of the gleaming white Sacré-Cœur church. Quite interesting that they chose to build it with white stone as a reminder of purity to all the sinful Montmartre residents. I sat in a pew to read about the history of the area when suddenly the space was filled with heavenly voices as the nuns began to sing! Amazing. I took my guidebook‘s recommended walk around the area that goes through the neighborhood where Renoir, Van Gogh, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec lived/painted/played. I ate dinner and remembered that my guidebook is fantastic for sights, but not so great on the eateries. I walked past the Moulin de la Galette and the more famous Moulin Rouge (the only two dance hall wind mills that are still standing in the area). I headed down Pigalle (Pig Alley) and visited the Erotic Art Museum, full of erotic and disgusting “art” pieces. Ooh La La!! The area gets progressively seedier as the sun goes down, so I headed back to my hotel. Although, the sun does not go down until about 9:30pm, so it’s awesome to be able to do things until pretty late!

I already feel like a pro at the subways – they are so easy to use, but I dislike how dirty and busy they are. I especially like traveling alone because you don’t have to argue with someone about which way you think is the right way to go and there are no compromises on what you do/do not want to see. But, I know I will be missing my friends and family like crazy by the time I’m done with all of this alone time!

A family friend who I have known for a very long time happened to be in Paris the same time as me to attend his cousin’s wedding and invited me to join him for  the festivities. He pitched it like this: No obligation, but do you want to go to a wedding on a yacht on the Seine, oh and the rehearsal dinner at a Michelin 3-Star restaurant? Uhhh, YES…. How can you resist something like that in such a romantic city??

 

Saturday, I woke up and decided to explore the area around my hotel for the morning, knowing that my friend would probably call around lunchtime. I walked over to Montparnasse and got some breakfast and coffee. Right as I was finishing up, he called, so I headed over to his friend’s place. She lives with her boyfriend and cat in a small apartment with a enviable view of the Eiffel Tower. I did not expect when I left my hotel that I wouldn’t be back until late, but what better way to view the city than from a local’s perspective, walking all over the city from cafe to cafe. We walked from her apartment to the school that my friend will be attending in the fall, ended up over by Notre Dame. Then, we walked over into the Marais district and went to the Carnavalet Museum (History of Paris) which was highly disappointing. We walked toward the Place de la Republique and walked along the Canal Saint Martin. The cousin (who is getting married) was having a party at his house which was nearby, so we headed over to the party and met the other guests our age. After a slight toilet mishap, the party moved to a park nearby. We ordered Pizza from this place called Pink Flamingo and they give you a pink balloon so they know where to deliver! Amazing! We watched dinner cruises full of sight-seers head up the locks of the canal. They looked at us and must have thought, “This is how the Parisians party – they drink wine in a park!” We ditched the crowd and headed to a wine bar to top off the night. Before we knew it, the bar was closing and it was 2am! Then became the arduous task to find our way home. Subways had stopped working, so we walked to the Bastille and then decided to hail a cab back home. In total, I think I walked 12km!


On Sunday, I slept in a bit and then tried to do a little sight-seeing before the rehearsal dinner. I took the metro to the Opera House, went to a perfume museum, and walked along a tres chic shopping area that was all closed because it was Sunday. I ate breakfast at a little cafe and met an older gentleman who is from Byron Bay. He runs Safaris in Africa and gave me his card. Exciting! I love meeting new people! Then I walked over on Champs Elysees and tried to go to the Grand and Petite Palace, but the Grand Palace was closed for set-up of the Fete de la Musique and the Petite Palace had a 2 hour line, in the rain! It was cold and rainy and I was not in a very good mood, so I decided to head to the Army Museum. I saw Napoleon’s Tomb, which was prettier than I expected it to be, then walked back to my hotel for an afternoon nap before getting ready for dinner. I took the subway to dinner which was an intimidating experience in my cocktail dress and heels. Dinner was at Le Meurice, which is a 3 Michelin Star restaurant! Being a foodie, I was excited for the dinner. Read about the challenge of being a picky eater here. Then we went to Buddha Bar for an expensive drink and I shared a cab ride home with the best man, and made the mistake of walking the last couple of blocks to my hotel, alone – read here.

On the summer solstice, I went inside Notre Dame, but not up in the tower (yet). The line was too long. I tried to go to the Deportation Memorial, but it was closed, so I just ate a late lunch, did a little shopping, and went up the Montparnasse Tower to see a nice view. I went back to my hotel for a nap and to get ready for the wedding. The wedding was pretty spectacular – the bride arrived with her father on a smaller boat (what an entrance!) and my friend played classical guitar during the processional. We rode down the Seine (or up?), to the Eiffel tower and back passing crowds of drum circles and fire-breathers for the Fete. The dinner was amazing and I realized that my wedding is just going to suck in comparison…

The sun finally set a little after 11pm. And we partied on the yacht until 1:30 orso, then a bus drove the young people over to a bar… That was pretty much the end of the night.

Tuesday – I went over to Notre Dame and this time decided to wait in the long line to climb the bell tower. The view from the top of the gargoyles was worth the wait. Walking into the legendary wood belfry was through a 1/2 door – are they trying to make everyone a hunchback?? One girl was very light-headed at the top, and I thought she might have vertigo from the dizzying spiral staircase, but I don’t really know. After, I went to the Deportation Museum, which is a memorial to the 200,000 French citizens that were interned in the Nazi concentration camps. It was nice, but not as moving as the memorial in Boston, MA (Ok, I lied, it still made me tear up). I walked back over to Saint Chapelle, but unfortunately the altar and many of the main stained-glass windows were covered due to restorations. Oh well, it was still beautiful to see the vibrantly painted ceilings and colorful light reflected on the floors like a kaleidoscope. I walked over to the Latin Quarter for some dinner and souvenir shopping down a fun little alley I’d been to on the first day.

Wednesday – I hit up the major museums, but accidentally did them in backwards order of art history. =( I walked through Tuileries Garden and visited the Orangerie Museum first to see Monet’s famed water lilies and some classic Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, etc. I didn’t know Picasso did so much classical art before his cubism. I also now have clear ideas of artists that I like and dislike: For instance, I don’t like Rousseau, Modigliani, Manet and Matisse. I really like Derain, Utrillo, Degas and Soutine. Cezzane, Renoir, Sisely, and Pissaro are alright. The verdict is still out on Picasso (unfortunately, the Picasso Museum is undergoing renovation, so I won’t be able to see more of his stuff). Next, I went back in time to Impressionism and Realism at the Musee D’Orsay, which is built in an old train station and is very pretty inside. You were not supposed to take photos at all inside the D’Orsay, but much like the Statue of David in Florence, many people snuck them anyway. I think that’s annoying because I want photos, but ultimately I end up abiding by the rules. It has a great collection of sculpture (my favorite form of art!) and many famous works by Van Gogh, Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc. My guide book failed because the entire upstairs was being remodeled, so all of the famous pieces were crammed into downstairs hallways, and mixed up! I found it to be very confusing to mix styles and artists and made me appreciate how difficult it is to place art well. I headed over to the Louvre and entered through the glass pyramid with almost no line! For one of the largest and most visited museums in the world, I happened to bump into two of the wedding guests!! Quite impossible, but they found me taking a photo of the Winged Victory. Together, we went through the statues to Venus de Milo and then they headed off to the Musee D’Orsay while I went in search of the Mona Lisa. Because I had gone backwards in time, most of the Louvre’s older and less famous paintings were a bit boring, so I made my way back to the sculptures section. I headed out toward the metro and inverse glass pyramid, stopped in the apple store for some free WiFi and headed home. I met my friends later for the end of the Germany World Cup game, a very late, delicious dinner.


Thursday – Hands down, Auguste Rodin is my favorite artist, so I was excited to start the day by going to the Rodin Museum at his estate and gardens. I learned quite a bit about his life and saw many of the famous sculptures, as well as ones that I’d never seen before. However, I was disappointed that my favorite piece was not there (The Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone). Oh well, I’ve seen it in other places like Stanford and Japan. Then, I went over to the Petite Palais again, this time it had no line, but it wasn’t worth the trip. It was filled with mediocre vases, furniture and paintings. The Grand Palais is still closed because they are setting up something big in there. I don’t know what it is, but I really wanted to see the glass ceiling from the inside. I took the subway over to the edge of town to see the Marmottan Museum which has mostly works by Monet. Until today, I thought that Monet and his water lilies were a little over-hyped and over-the-top paradisiacal, but I realized that he really did master the use of splotchy color. They had some modern art, like Jackson Pollock pieces next to his and I thought it went together surprisingly well – a nice conversation, as opposed to yesterday in the D’Orsay which was just frustrating. I tried to go to the Hotel Concorde-LaFayette for a drink at the Panoramic Bar at the top, but it wasn’t opening for another 40 minutes, so instead I walked to the Arc de Triomphe. Then I ate dinner on the Champs Elysees before going back to my hotel.

Friday – Went to the Ile St. Louis for a Crepe brunch and some delicious Berthillon Green Apple ice cream. Then I went into a few stores and walked across to the Holocaust Museum, which was so much better than expected/advertised. They had a wall of names sorted by the year each person died (4 walls were devoted to 1942, while only 2 for 1943 and 1944). The commemoration nearby says it all: “This wall gives an identity to the children, women and men that the Nazis tried to eradicate from the face of the earth. Their names, engraved in stone, will perpetuate their memory.” Downstairs was an extensive museum about the history of French Jews before the war, the acts that led to their deportation, internment and of course the majority of their deaths. There were tons of photos, actual documents and deportation orders, letter testimonies from escapees, etc. The museum has only been around since 2005, when the French President decided it was right for the French government to accept their role in what went down. Fabulous museum, one of my top 5 historical museums of all time. And it’s free, although I donated what I thought it was worth. Then I walked through the Marais Neighborhood, which used to be the Jewish Ghetto, but is now ironically one of the openly gay districts… Got distracted by a hat store, of course. Nonetheless, I made it to the Pompidou Center for some Modern Art! I have a new respect for Picasso and Braque’s cubism styles, but didn’t think much of the rest of the modern art that was showcased. Maybe I am naive, but I like my classic greek sculptures, as idealistic as they are… Went over to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery and wandered around the graves of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison, Fredric Chopin, etc, etc. For as crowded as it was, I was pleased to find so many trees so that I could rest on some grass in the waning afternoon sun. Then, I went back to Ile St. Louis for some yummy dinner and wine.

Saturday – Traveled out to Versailles on the train and now I know why it’s a must-see! Wow. So decadent and fancy for Louis XIV. The gardens were much bigger and better than I expected. I mean there are the manicured gardens, but it also extends to each side with grassy fields and shady trees, etc. I was also surprised how vibrant the painted ceilings were despite letting guests use flash photography. I guess they restore it well and often. Met an older Scotsman at lunch, who had to have been about 70 and told me he was 23 1/2! He lives in Versailles but spends 5 months in India, his other favorite country. Anyway, apparently Saturday was the Gay Pride Parade in downtown Paris, which I missed because I was in Versailles, but oh well! Maybe next time. I made it back to Paris in time for the USA World Cup game. I met up with my friend’s buddies at an Irish Pub in their neighborhood. It was great fun to watch with a bunch of fans, but I still prefer my hockey to anything else. I was craving a good ole American Cheeseburger, so we went to a restaurant called Indiana for a late dinner.

Sunday – I walked to the Catacombs (to make more room for the city, they dug up all the church graveyards and placed the bones in a large crypt beneath the city). The walk was long and I’m not sure I would recommend it. Just when you think you’ll never see any bones, you see millions of them stacked up for miles! And, after walking through these hallways of skeletons, you start to wonder if these bones are just tourists that get trapped in this underground maze. It’s all very dark and there’s no flash photography allowed, not to mention it is damp and there are drips and puddles. I splashed in a puddle with my flip flops and it felt like stepping in death. Also, they tell you that you are below the subways and the sewer system, so whatever is dripping has to be pretty nasty. Then I went over to Saint Germain des Pres and Saint Sulpice churches. I was a little disappointed when I learned that Saint Sulpice has a gnomon that I did go on the Summer Solstice, but I think the hole was covered since they were doing restorations to the exterior anyway. Walked back to my hotel through the Luxembourg Garden which was bustling with families. I wondered why there aren’t more parks in the states, but then I remembered that they’d probably just be full of drug dealers and gang members (hell, maybe this one was too). I went to the Eiffel Tower for dinner and to ascend near dusk. It was beautiful to see the sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and watch the city light up as the sky darkened. The moon rose in the east and was bright red, and I saw a couple get engaged!! I descended and sat on the grass of the Champ de Mars, gazing up at the lit tower. Every hour, on the hour, it sparkles with tons of lights for 5 minutes. I watched that and thought what a perfect ending to a wonderful time in Paris!!