Europe by train..or..How I changed my perspective

October 7,2011
Seville, Spain

We have left Seville after three days of getting reacquainted with Kathryn. I know she is still the same but she is clearly more worldly now. I know that is a cliche but it is true. She almost struggles with English now when we speak. She is thinking spanish and searching for the word usage in English instead of the other way around. What a different view of Spanish you get when immersed in the culture and yours is the language no one listens to.

Seville is beautiful. Really old world. Cobblestone narrow streets with shops and restaurants everywhere. One minute you are in a modern store the next at the foot of a monument (their words) dating back to the 11th century. The Muslim influence is everywhere. Even the orange trees, they are everywhere you go, are a transplant from the Morrocans.

We visited at length with Kathryn’s Spanish mother. She has had a major influence on Kathryn and all in a positive way. If Kathryn was liberal in her beliefs before, she has expanded her tolerance to a new and higher degree. She sees the world in a entirely new light.

We are riding the train now to Barcelona and enjoying the changing landscape of Spain. At 160 mph, I am envious of what this old world culture has. Damn our countless super highways, gas guzzling cars and ear deafening semis. The town centers are truly centers of activities. No malls, just plazas and social events. The country side is country, not cluttered with towns and burbs. Don’t get me wrong, I am still coming home and will become part of the system again, but it is nice to see the view from the other side of the street.

So on to Barcelona and yet another look at the Spanish culture. I cannot wait to get there and start the next leg.

October 9, 2011
Barcelona, Spain

We are on our last night in Barcelona and we have bid our travel agent, aka, Kathryn, a tearful goodbye, but not before touring the Castel and the Barcelona Olympic Village. Both were awesome and worth the walking it took to get around. We were able to take a gondola up to the Castel and the views were spectacular. The Olympic Village was impressive as well and was used for the 1992 Olympics.

We spent our first night in Barcelona doing a little shopping and then took in a flamenco show. We got to experience yet another mode of transportation by taking the subway home. We have now used a car, plane, bus, taxi, train and subway. Just have to find a boat. Saturday was spent sleeping in and then heading back to the town center for some serious shopping (Kathryn got me the european look). The rest of the day was spent touring the Gothic Cathedral and later at night the First Church of Guadi. The later church is still under construction (at least three years to go) and was begun in 1900. The architecture takes your breath away in these cathedrals. We completed the day with an incredible dinner in a cafe near the Gaudi Church. Such generous helpings of delicious food and then a complimentary shot of raspberry schnapps when we said we had no room for dessert. The waiter insisted.

This is my observation so far. The people of Spain are drawn to their city centers. Their history and culture is there and these are truly centers in every sense of the word. Our hotel was located on the Mediteranean Sea but the area was not populated like it would be in the states. It is simply somewhere to go. We build parking edifices in our downtowns and then wonder why no one uses mass transit. We build huge shopping malls and big box stores in the suburbs and wonder why no one goes downtown to shop. Though we will never change because it is our culture, the city center here is incredibly alive, attractive (witness the Guadi buildings downtown) and accessible and I. will certainly miss it when I get home.

We leave tomorrow for France. The train will take us to Bordeux but this time we will be on our own. Kathryn was our savior every where we have gone so far. Though Deb and I did single handedly manage to secure a taxi ride back to the hotel after seeing Kathryn off in hers, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to some fear when we tackle the rest of Spain and then France on our own. We have at least learned a lot of survival techniques from our time with Kathryn as our guide.

October 12, 2011
Boudreau, France

We are leaving Bordeaux and saying goodbye to yet another beautiful city. Though the hotel was very close to the train station, it was a good thirty minute walk to the downtown area. But the walk was easy and there were many things to see along the way, including the Miroir of Eau. This was a public fountain with a thin sheet of water over a one block area that reflected all of the buildings. Periodically there would be a mist effect that made the whole thing look like it was floating. We vowed to come back to it at night to see it under lights. The effort was worth the reward. It also afforded us the chance to take in a tavern on the boulevard and enjoy some leisure time waiting for dark.

We spent most of the day touring the shopping district and several cathedrals. They are big into the spires here and twin spires seem to denote the larger cathedrals. Pretty spectacular and they provide great landmarks as you are walking. We arrived on the main square just as a labor march formed up and I had all I could do to keep Deb from joining the protest. All in all we had a very eclectic day with a Spanish breakfast in a little cafe run by a very proud and friendly spainard, a french cafe lunch and an Italian supper. In between we tossed in a few pints at an English tavern. I must admit it was nice to hear spoken English, but like Kathryn, I almost didn’t understand it.

I guess my observation of Bordeaux is that it still had all the similarities with the cities in Spain. Life centers around the downtown area with it’s shops and cafes nestled in between the cathedrals. Bordeaux was more modern than Seville but less so than Barcelona. It hit me more from the aspect of it’s role in WWII. We visited a museum dedicated to the resistance and it really hit home. So unlike watching a movie of the same event. Here you could walk the same square and touch the walls of the buildings and for a moment, just a moment, have a real sense of how it felt.

We are a few hours from Paris now and our co-travelers are from Australia and very familiar with Paris. That means good conversation, great information and all in English!!!

October 12, 2011
Paris, France

We arrived in Paris around 4:30 and could already see the Eiffel Tower from the train. What a sensation. I am so jealous of the younger generation who now travel the world via a backpack. Why have I waited so long for this opportunity to be part of a much larger world than the one I grew up in.

Our trip in from Bordeaux again pointed out the virtues of Europe’s rail system. We shared a very comfortable compartment with another couple from Sydney, Australia (Phil and Jeanette, for the record) and the four hours flew by. What a comfortable way to travel.

We managed to squeeze in a nice dinner at a French bistro called Le Chartier and then walked up to the Basilque du Sacre Coeur. This was a huge white cathedral high above the city with an incredible view of Paris down below. It was a tough uphill and many stairs hike but worth the effort. We found a funicular (cable car) and enjoyed a nice scenic ride back to street level and then, after a successful map walk with encouragement from the IPad, we were back at the hotel and resting up for the busy two days ahead.

October 13, 2011
Paris, France

We spent a long first day touring Paris. We spent most of it walking and probably covered at least six miles. Our friends from the other day warned us not to get distracted as Paris offers something different around every corner. What a true statement. Every building is more incredible than the last and then suddenly you are standing in front of the Louvre, next minute you are graced with the elegance of the Eiffel Tower and another corner brings the Arc de Triomphe into view.

We did break up our walk with a city bus tour. It was one of those hop on and hop off services and it gave us a chance to get an overview for exploring later. Though we saw Notre Dame, we will tour it tomorrow along with the Louvre. We focused on the Arc of Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. We climbed to the terrace atop the arch and viewed the city from up high. Really an incredible monument. Both massive in scope and yet almost art like in it’s sculptured facade.

The Eiffel Tower is an entirely different story. The wait was about one and half hours but the experience was unbelievable. The structure is so massive and yet so totally delicate. It takes your breath away standing under the legs. Needless to say we decided to go all the way to the third deck. It is aptly titled “the summit”. Now I had been on the replica in Las Vegas and was impressed with the height, but this is the real deal and twice as high. The summit deck is above 1000 feet and the lattice work style leaves you feeling very vulnerable. I will admit that I had a serious case of vertigo going on but I survived. The views of Paris, simply breath taking. From the top, you get a completely different view of the city. The network of boulevards becomes obvious and the structure of the buildings look like puzzle pieces in a giant mosaic. To have shunned the line and the cost for that matter would have been a travesty. I can now mark it off my bucket list but would repeat it in a heart beat.

We finished the day with a boat trip down the Seine and then a nice meal in a sidewalk cafe. We directed our walk back home past the Arc de Triomphe one more time to view it in it’s splendor under the night lights of Paris.

Yesterday we were in Paris, today we experienced it. I look forward to tomorrow and the chance to see the Louvre and at least some of it’s incredible art.

October 14, 2011
Paris, France

Beautiful sunny day but cool. We slept in a little this morning and then after breakfast in the hotel, we walked to the Louvre. The size of this building is impossible to describe. Once the palace for the French kings, it sits majestically spread out along the banks of the Seine like a lion with it’s paws outstretched. As you look down the long gardens boulevard, you can see the Grand Palaise and the Arc de Triomphe gracing the end. As we went inside we had to decide which wing we would tour. The decision was not really that hard as we wanted at the very least to see the Mona Lisa painting. We accomplished that and quite a bit more in the four hours we spent inside. The building with it’s multiple levels within a single floor, had us so turned around it took us nearly fifteen minutes and two guides just to find our way back out. The Paris city streets were actually easier to navigate. We managed to see many famous paintings by Italian and French artists as well as an incredible display of ancient and medieval sculptures. We spent quite some time in the Egyptian section where many sarcophagus and funerarie artifacts were displayed along with their jewelry items and calligraphy tablets. Even having now been there, it is hard to imagine the amount of total items that are being displayed or stored.

Once we left the Louvre, we took the walk along the terraces on the Seine and worked our way to the island where Notre Dame is located. Built in the 1200’s, it is one of the most iconic cathedrals. We climbed the towers to the rooftop and even got inside the bell tower. I must admit I was looking for Quasimodo to appear at any moment. A gentleman I was walking with reminded me that these were the same stairs walked by Napoleon himself! That truly puts perspective on the age and significance of these buildings.

So eventually it all had to end. In my effort to be romantic, we finished our Paris trip with dinner at the Trocadaro Cafe including some wine and creme broule while watching the illumination of the Eiffel Tower just across the street. After dinner we walked out on the terrace and took way too many pictures of the tower but it was still nearly impossible to turn away and head back to the hotel. I must have stopped a half dozen times for “just one more look”.

I did make a wish in Paris and it was that both Bailey and Kathryn will get to Paris in their lifetime.

October 15, 2011
Leaving Paris

We boarded the Eurostar for London this morning and are now underway. Just a few more hours in France and we will tour them from the window of our train. It was quite cold this morning, 37 degrees. Probably time to reflect on our hotel stays. Best location had to be Seville with us right in the heart of the city. Fanciest I will give to Barcelona as well as best towels. Barcelona managed to make us use the subway system as it was way out by the beach but that helped us handle the Metro in Paris. Bordeaux receives the award for the most comfortable bed. Apparently Spain does not believe in people sleeping together, at least not in hotels. Either that or they figure a twin bed is a cozy sleep for two. France on the other hand espouses to the bigger is better and far more romantic. Our hotel in Paris will get the best shower so far award. There was more room in the bathroom than the bedroom but all in all a pretty good location and a nice staff. It was by far the quaintest of the lot.

October 15, 2011
Crossing into England

We just cleared the English Channel via the Chunnel and are now on English soil. I was thinking about the two countries we have just left and felt like making a few observations.

When you are an American about to travel abroad, you hear so many opinions about the people you will encounter. I had been told that the Spanish people would be the friendlier and that the French might be far less so. I found little difference between the two. Their cultures are different in part due to the climate as well as the locale, but both were friendly and helpful. When you are over here you tend to stick out because of the clothes we wear even before we open our mouth to speak. We are tourists and as such will be treated with some degree of indifference by anyone not involved in tourism. I know that we behave no differently toward tourist in our own country. It does make you commit to behaving differently once you go home. The problem is, how long does that last? If I had to describe a difference between Spain and France, it would be that the French, and that would be in Paris, were more serious and business like. But as I stated, locale effects culture and we were in one of the largest cities in the world when we were here in Paris. The one striking similarity that I observed is that they enjoy the act of eating out in the same manner. They actually make it an art and take it very seriously. In America it is all about the speed of the service. In Europe, it is all about the slowness. Everything slows down when one enters a restaurant or cafe. The courses are spaced out and to ask for the check is almost insulting. One must have some more coffee and wine before they are allowed to leave. I will miss this aspect along with the ability to walk to everything you need. Life slows down here and they seem to live longer.

October 15 2011
London, England

We are here. We have now been in the capital of three countries, Madrid, Paris and now London. Not knowing quite what to expect, we take the taxi always watching for familiar sites. Other than recognizable names, we don’t see anynthing until we are almost to the hotel, and then there is Buckingham Palace. It really does take us by surprise. After checking into our hotel, the best so far in pretty much all my previous categories, we decide not to waste any time. We hopped on one of the many tour buses and started to journey around the famous sites. I think the most impressive are Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. They are after all so iconic and are what you think of when you are picturing London.

We ride the bus around and then get off at Trafalgar Square. From here it is a reasonably short walk (everything seems reasonable now) to Big Ben and the London Eye. The sight of Big Ben is mesmerizing. I am again taking way too many pictures. After a walk across Westminster Bridge, we are at the London Eye. The timing was perfect as we got on just as the sun was setting. By the time we reached the top, it was night and all of London lie lit up below us. What an incredible mechanism and awesome sight. You are told how slowly it moves, one revolution takes 30 minutes, but it is back around all too fast.

We finished our evening with dinner in a London pub near our hotel. We were warned to enjoy the food everywhere else and though ample it lived up to that billing.

October 16, 2011
London, England

We got up early today and walked through James Park by Buckingham Palace and then back down to the Eye where we picked up our boat ride for the tour on the Thames River. It was quite a long trip and went all the way from Big Ben in Westminster to the Olympic areas out in Greenwich. London will host the Olympics in 2012 and you can see signs around the city of the building going on.

On the way back up river, we got off at the Tower of London and did the guided walking tour with a real Beefeater. It was very entertaining and quite a lot of history. The beheadings that took place here are hard to fathom. Especially when they include the likes of Anne Bolynn, the wife of Henry VIII, a would be queen in Jane Grey and Saint Thomas Moore. I guess when you piss off the royalty it doesn’t matter too much who you are. Very gruesome!

We spent the next hour or so taking the scenic river walk including Winston Churchill’s residence at 10 Downing Street on the way back to Trafalgar Square where we grabbed fish and chips at a local pub and then hit a second pub for a late night dessert.

October 17, 2011
Heathrow Airport

I managed to convince Deb to take the underground, or tube as it is called, to the airport. Of course this did not come without a dry run last night just to walk her through the steps. She is sitting across from me, clutching her bag as if she is sitting between five finger George and Jack the Ripper. In reality we are surrounded by men in business suits and a gaggle of school children all in their prim and proper uniforms. Oh well, small steps. By the end she actually felt we should encourage Kathryn to use this diabolical mode of transportation as she travels Europe later on.

I guess all good adventures eventually do end and so will ours. Unless something incredibly exciting or noteworthy happens in our flight home, this will be my last entry.

As we sit here waiting for a plane, I wish it were some how the train instead. I can’t tell you enough how nice it is to travel that way. Besides the scenery, check in and out is so uncomplicated and the ride is so comfortable. Best of all, the train affords you time to reflect as you watch the country side slide by outside your window.

Compare this to a plane. You are crammed into a too small seat and carried up to an altitude where everything is obscurely tiny if you have any view of it at all. My views have generally been of the engine which allows me to wonder if the screaming noise will eventually end in an explosion as the whole works comes tearing off. Conversation, are you kidding, I have to compete with the screaming engine. This is one area where progress is not so impressive, other than the fact that they can get an unbelievably heavy and ackward looking machine to actually fly, I don’t even believe that I save time. The train takes me to the center of the city where I can walk or metro to my hotel while the plane drops me off somewhere in the nearby countryside. From here I can load everything I actually am able to retrieve from the conveyor belt and throw it into a cab to pay by the agonizing minute, try sitting patiently in traffic with the meter running, just to reach my actual destination. But who am I kidding, I doubt they will figure out how to run trains across the ocean anytime soon so I will stop my whining and accept “progress”.

When we set out to do this, we were going to just do two cities in Spain. As it expanded to five cities and three countries, I am sure people questioned our sanity. I know I did! In retrospect, I do not regret it at all. I know that we certainly didn’t see everything available within a city, but we saw wonderful things and so many diverse cultures. If one is willing to take the risk and just step out into the adventure, you can experience so much within a short amount of time. I am exhausted but fulfilled. I will have memories that last my remaining lifetime and what a shame if I had been so close and missed the chance.

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