Sunday, February 28, 2010

Athens Pt. 2

Today Lauren and I set out to the flea market while Cameron slept in. We spent the better half of two hours working our way through the various crowded alleys and plazas of the Monasteriki neighborhood which houses the market. Sunday is apparantly the most crowded day, as the whole place was flooded with people. There was a lot of cool things, but for either price reasons or the lack of space to take things back, I didn't buy anything but a super old postcard of Athens to add to a planned travel college that I'd like to make upon getting home. Since we were in the neighborhood, we walked through the Ancient Forum that borders the market area. The Ancient Forum was the old cultural and commercial center of the city after the Acropolis could no longer contain the growing population. The Forum was where the schools of music and philosophy were located, and were the majority of the education citizenry would gather. The site is now primarily ruins, similar to the Acropolis, after the consecutive destructions of the city by the Persians and Spartans in the 400s B.C. The best-preserved part of the site is the Temple of Hephaistos, a Doric temple similar (in construction, though not in scale) to the Pantheon. The rest of the grounds are just scattered with columns and wall foundations similar to the Roman Forum that we visited yesterday. Apparantly on Sunday all of the government museums and sites close at 3, so we were ushered out without getting to explore everything.

After the Forum, we were about ready for lunch so we headed east to the Plaka neighborhood on the other side of the Acropolis. The Frommer's book I had recommended a number of nice tavernas in this area and we decided on Damigos, an old-school codfish place that's been under the same family since 1865. We split some fried feta and dlomates (the stuffed vine leaves from yesterday) for appetizers and then I got the fried codfish for my main plate. That's apparantly what they're famous for, so I had to get it. We lounged around Damigos taking our time until about 5pm (late lunch, right?) and then walked back through the area toward home. We took a side trip to Syntagma Square to see if we could find these dessert places the book recommended, but both ended up being closed. Sunday must not be the best day to try and do everything you'd like to in Greece. We settled on a different bakery and sat down for some baklava and coffee. Cameron, finally up for the day, was able to make his way south to Syntagma and met us there. Afterwards, we walked home to our hostel for an easy night in so that we are able to plan a day trip tomorrow.

Athens Pt. 1

We flew out of Paris on Friday evening to head to our first spring break destination, Athens, getting there at about 12:30 in the morning on Saturday. We took a bus, as the metro had already closed, to downtown and got off in the central square, called Syntagma. Thanks to my Frommers book I was able to guide us north to Omonia Square to find our hostel. We were soon to discover that Athens is very interesting in the sense that the city can go from rich and prosporous to completely dilapidated in a very short time, even in the middle of a city block. So while Omonia Square is one of the central points in the city, just a block north and a block west our hostel sits in the middle of a bunch of prostitutes, bums, and junkies. Luckily the hostel itself is super nice and safe, but the neighborhood around it is complete trash. Good thing we're paying 15 euros a night per person. We didn't do anything that first night since we got there so late, but upon our arrival at the hostel we did get a free, welcome-to-Greece ouzo shot.

Since I'd heard that sometimes the government museum workers will go on strike (similar to when we visited Paris six years ago) and the sites shut down, we headed to the Acropolis early on our first morning here. We left our hostel on Omonia Square and walked south to Monasteriki, which is one of the neighborhoods that surrounds the Acropolis. We visited the Roman Forum, which is a series of buildings - libraries and gymnasiums and public offices - that the Romans built when the city was under their control. Very, very cool to see just how old everything was. After taking a million pictures in the two forums, we began the long uphill climb to the Acropolis. The grounds around the Acropolis are all preserved because of the various ruins and ongoing excavations there, but what makes it so spectacular is just the amount of green that surrounds the massive natural walls of the acropolis. Once we got near the top, we took a detour up onto this massive rock where you had a good view of the city, just to see how far we'd climbed thus far and get some good panoramas. We then climbed back down and went up the final leg of the climb to the Acropolis. For once, being an ESCP student paid off and we got into the whole system of Greek museums and sites free, saving 12 euros but missing out on the relatively sweet holographic ticket stub. Oh well. The final walk up to the Acropolis is amazing in itself, as you come into view of the Theatre of Dionysus and Odeon of Herottus Atticus below you and the Propylaea in front of you. You walked through remains of the Propylaea, the ancient gate, and then come into full view of the remains of the Pantheon and the Erechteon. Unfortunately for pictures sake, the Pantheon was almost completely covered in scaffolding for restoration and reconstruction. Apparantly in the last several years the government has embarked on an ambitious program to rebuild parts of the building destroyed over the years. I'll be glad to see that happen, but was a little bit disappointed to have no clear view of the building for photos. Oh well. The view from up top was just miraculous and I must have shot 200 pictures that first day anyway. We spent about an hour or so up on the very top but our stomachs were growling and forced us to abandon the ruins in search of food.

We climbed down from the Acropolis view the south side and wound through a series of ruins and excavations leading down to the Theatre of Dionysus. Dionysus was the god of revelry (among other things like wine and drunkeness) and the Greek theatrical tradition developed out of dramatic competitions meant to honor the god. The theatre on the side of the Acropolis was the site of performances by Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and other poets that I'd come across at Country Day, so I knew a little bit about the tradition the theatre represented.

We stopped for lunch at a little taverna next door to the National Archaeological Museum, The Gods' Cafe. We started off with some dlomates, which are grape vine leaves soaked in olive oil and stuffed with a rice pilaf concoction, and some fried feta drizzled with honey and poppy seeds. Both were absolutely delicious. From that point I tried one of the more traditional Greek dishes, moussakas, which is a lasagna of sorts comprised of minced meats, eggplant, and pasta that all have a weird certain sweetness about them. But, all in all, we were able to sit outside in the sun, people-watching with a gorgeous backdrop of the Acropolis, and eat a fantastic meal for 20 euros. It definately felt like, for the first time, that it was an actual spring break (I was to discover later that Paris has already made me forget what the sun feels like; just a few hours out in moderate sun gave me a nice burn on my nose).

Our next stop was the New Acropoli Museum. It is a super modern building built just south of the Acropolis. The original museum was on top of the rock itself, but the limited space and poor construction of the building led to a miserable presentation of the collection, so the government opted for a new and modern structure about a decade ago. They had hoped to build the museum in time for the 2004 Olympics in a desperate plea to the British to return the Elgin marbles (the sculptures from the two pediments of the Pantheon that are now housed in the British Museum and subject to a 200 year-old ownership controversy), but their efforts were stalled when construction of the museum's foundation unearthed a massive Greek and Byzantine city thousand(s) of years old. The museum is thus now built on massive concrete pillars that allow excavation to carry on underneath. The coolest thing about the museum, though, is that the floors are all transparent so that for the entire first floor one can look down and see the ruins of the city below. On the first two floors are finds from the Acropolis, dating back to the first records of civilization there, and on the third a to-scale modern reconstruction of the Parthenon. The columns (17 on the long sides and 9 on the short ones) are spaced exactly to the dimensions of the ruins, and the sculptures from the pediments, friezes (bas relief sculptures that act as a form of crown molding on the inner structure), and metopes (massive carved panels that decorated the outer rim of the structure) are filled in exactly where they rested on the original. It's too bad that the original structure has little to zero sculpture remaining on it. Between destruction of the temple by Spartan arson, Christian defacing of the statues, and the supremely unfortunate explosion in 1687 caused by the Turks using it as a powder storage, the Parthenon is in very bad shape and all the artwork has been moved inside. But, it made for a super interesting museum display and was one of the reasons I'd say that the New Acropolis Museum is the most impressive and overall intriguing museums I've ever been in.

After spending about an hour and a half in there, we headed West along the Grand Promenade, which wraps around the whole area that surrounds the Acropolis and puts one back on the central east-west road that divides the town. Found a great place to see a sunset over a drink or meal, so there are a number of tavernas in that area I wouldn't mind coming back to in the next couple of days. We walked back to Monasteriki Square and then back to Omonia Square to take a nap at our hostel, from which we went back to the Monasteriki area and had dinner on Adrianou street with the lit-up Acropolis and Temple of Hephaistos as our backdrop. I tried the pork souvlaki and a Greek feta salad, as to eat as much of the local fare as possible. Also had a pint of the local beer, Mythos. We finished dinner at about 12:30 (Athens is a super-late town) and went back to our hostel. A fantastic, fantastic first day.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Firenze: Part Tre

Today we got out early to see as much as we could with our last full day here. We were hoping that the weather would cooperate more so than yesterday, and we ended up getting lucky with cloud cover most of the day but no rain. Our first stop was the Palazzo Vecchio, one of the fortified palaces of the Medicis during their 300-year gubernatorial reign over Firenze. They say that the palace has the second-most impressive collection of Renaissance art after the Uffizi, but I was surprised to see that it was all attached to the walls and ceilings! Unlike the Uffizi, the Palazzo was covered in intricate fresnos and carved ceilings, as opposed to framed canvases hung up. Each of the rooms seemed more ridiculous than the last and all the apartments seemed to cluster around a massive great hall that is now used as a conference center. The city of Firenze and, more specifically, the mayor's office, still uses the Palazzo for a government building on a day to day basis, so it doesn't just function as a museum by any means. On our way out, we accidentally stumbled into the marriage and death certificate office I think.

After the Palazzo, we walked across the Ponte Vecchio behind the Uffizi and got our first glimpse of the bridge during the day when the goldsmiths and jewelers were actually open. We went south from the Arno and found a little pizzeria called Gusta Pizza that my friend from FWCDS had recommended. We got a margherita and caprese pizza baked in a massive pizza oven right in front of us. After we got some food in our stomach, we went across the street to the Palazzo Pitti - another of the Medici's homes - to walk around the Bobili Gardens for the afternoon. It was very much like Versailles but on a much smaller scale. It was good to get some exercise in, though, and we took a whole lot of pictures. The whole site was up on a hill in the south of the city and offered a great vantage point.

I went back to the Tuscana food and wine store that we went to the first night and got three bottles of chiante (the maximum you're allowed to carry back without being considered an importer) and some Italian spices to combine with the vinegrette and olive oil I bought on Thursday night. I think I'm going to have to pack my suitcase full of Italian goodies and put all of my clothes in a bag to carry on the plane with me or else I won't have any room left.

Sunday morning, Bob and I went to Mass (in Italian) inside Santa Maria del Fiore. It was definately a unique experience, and even though we couldn't understand 99% of what they were saying, it was amazing to be in there looking up at the dome from the altar. After that, we climbed Giotto's bell tower for one last glimpse of the city from above, checked out of our hotel and headed back to the airport. By far the best and most rewarding vacation we've ever been on.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Firenze: Part Due

Today we started our day with a huge breakfast at our hotel, which made me exceptionally happy. We had the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery on our slate for the day and was going to do anything else that we had time for. We first walked to Santa Maria del Fiore (the name of the Duomo) and went inside. Unlike some of the other abbeys I've been in in London and Paris, Santa Maria del Fiore is completely open inside and not divided into smaller components like the nave, baptistry, and altar. Instead, the moment you walk in you have an astounding view some 150-200 yards to the end of the church. As its made in a new style of architecture that differs vastly from the Gothic style of Westminster and Notre Dame, the church is also much wider and spacious, so that added to the immenseness of the room inside.

The floor, like the exterior walls, is made up of thousands of various green, pink, and white marble bricks laid in intricate patterns. We walked around the inside for a little while taking pictures of the church and the top of the dome itself before actually attempting to climb it. From street level to the observation deck is 463 steps up the old staircases used by the masons and painters who actually built the dome. Brunelleschi designed the dome to actually be two domes that are self-reinforcing. Thus, the passage to the top takes visitors winding up the cupola and dome in between the two shells. It was very interesting to see some of the original structural elements and bricks that haven't been replaced (or needed to be) in 600 years. When we finally reached the top, it unfortunately started to rain relatively hard. We still made it out and took pictures of the city from beneath our umbrellas, but we were all three pretty disappointed that the horizon wasn't nearly as clear as it had been an hour before. Oh well. We may have to do it again tomorrow.

After the Duomo, we got a quick bite to eat at a small pizza shop and then headed south to the Galleria Uffizi, home to the world's largest and most impressive collection of Renaissance pieces. We had to wait in line for about 45 minutes, even though its the low tourism season. I'm guessing the rain had driven all the tourists inside to Firenze's museums this afternoon. We spent about 2-1/2 hours inside the Uffizi, seeing early Renaissance works by Cimabue and Giotto - still in the process of escaping from the Byzantine style of paintings - to the later masterpieces of Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Raphael. We saw a number of paintings that I learned about in art history and was able to recognize, which was pretty cool. Even with the Louvre and British Museum under my belt, I still don't often see in person paintings capable of being recognized by everyone.

After the Uffizi, we headed home to dry off and change for dinner. We also busted upon a bottle of chiante and the bruschetta that we'd been given the night before at Buca Mario. We followed a tip from the lady that had sold us the wine and olive oils yesterday and went to a place called Sostanza. I had a Florentine rib steak with tortellini. We also tried some traditional dishes - an artichoke quiche and goose-liver pate spread - for appetizers, but I wasn't super fond of either. It was interesting to try new things, though. After all that we walked down the Arno to try and work some of our dinner off, took some pictures from Ponte Vecchio, and then wandered the city in search of gelatto. Not hard to find, but we felt like walking around so we took our time deciding on a place. We ate that on the way back to Santa Maria Novella and are calling it quits post-midnight to be able to have a productive last full day tomorrow.

Buon Compleanno a Roberto!

We arrived in Firenze (Florence) on Thursday. We took a cab into the old city center to the Piazza Santa Maria Novella - the entire city is grouped into little neighborhoods that surround these massive open piazzas - and checked into the hotel Santa Maria Novella. The people at the counter couldn't have been nicer, even when I forgot my impromptu Italian that I had learned on the plane down. I don't know how such an easy word as prenotazione (reservation) escaped me, but it did. The people here are exponentially nicer than in Paris. The lady was happy to speak with us in English, and then when she took our passwords and figured out it was Bob's birthday she prompted wished him a 'buon compleanno' and upgraded our room to a two-story one! The picture below is a view from Bob & Deb's room of the Piazza Santa Maria Novella outside. The hotel itself is beautiful and features a bunch of reading rooms, libraries, and drawing rooms all covered in gorgeous artwork, fireplaces, and bookshelves. Definately want to just take a book and a bottle of wine down one evening and relax.

We got situated and immediately plowed out into the city to take advantage of the three hours of daylight we still had. We set out west from Santa Maria Novella to the Duomo, the Cathedral named Santa Maria del Fiore that features Bernelleschi's impressive dome (constructed over 30 years in the 1400s) and Giotto's campanile bell tower (constructed in the late 1300s). The entire church took over 200 years to complete and was impacted by a good deal of the Renaissance masters we know today. We got gelatto at a little place called Grom, recommended to me by a girl from Country Day that lives here now, and then walked around the Duomo up toward Piazza del Annunziata (of the Annunciation). We decided to stop in and see Michaelangelo's David at the Galleria del Accademia. By far the most impressive piece of artwork I've ever seen in my life. Unlike the Mona Lisa, which is talked up and then leaves you semi-disappointed with its appearance in reality, David absolutely blows you away. The detail is astounding, you can walk around him all 360 degrees, and the sheer size - 17 feet tall - is incredible. We spent probably 20 or so minutes just looking at the incredible details: the veins on his hand and arm, the intricacy of the slingshot, and the curls of his hair were all just beyond us in how someone can carve that out of marble. The rest of the Galleria featured early Renaissance artwork that was still developing out of the Byzantine era.

After the Galleria del Accademia, we walked south again and perused the Mercato Centrale, a massive open-air market where people are hawking a variety of goods. We stumbled into a little wine shop that happened to be one of Firenze's coolest little places. It was operated by a woman from Iowa who had studied abroad in Firenze and married a man she met there, and she sold wine, balsamic vinegrettes, olive oils, pastas, spices, etc etc. Needless to say my dad and I had a field day, and I came away with some olive oil, balsamic, and a bottle of after-dinner lemon liquor that is uniquely Italian. We then headed to Buca Mario, a restaurant our concierge recommended, for Bob's birthday dinner, but we figured out that it wasn't open yet and so got a drink in the hotel Bagliano bar to waste a little time. Our second trip back to Buca Mario was more successful and we were able to get a table without a reservation - a luxury, we noticed, that we would not have been afforded if we'd come 30 minutes later. The place is obviously popular with locals and was packed shortly thereafter. The Italian tradition is to get two main courses per person: a pasta dish and a meat dish. I got a fettuccine to start with and then veal cutlets in a white wine sauce. We also got two bottles of the house wine (literally made for the restaurant) and some desserts. All in all, the dinner took about 2 1/2 hours, which is supposedly typical for Italy. At the end, we were treated to a surprise when all the waiters came out with a birthday dish with a Roman candle in it and started singing happy birthday to Bob. Except some of them changed his name to Roberto, and some of them changed it to Bobito, so it was pretty funny toward the end. The owner of the restaurant, a little gray-haired old lady, also came out with goodie basks of bruschetta and kissed him on the cheek. We about died laughing and then had a round of the lemon liquor that I mentioned earlier.

After that huge meal Debbie was about worn out, so she took the bruschetta and went back to Santa Maria Novella while Bob and I took our cameras and headed down to walk the Arno. The entire city is tiny compared to Paris - only 500,000 inhabitants and the ability to walk clear across town in 15 minutes. Compared to the sprawling metropolis of Paris, it was a welcome surprise. We walked from the west side of town along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio, a 1200-year-old bridge covered with three stories of jewelers and goldsmiths, then cut north through the Piazza della Signoria to see the Palazzio Vecchio (one of the Medici houses and the original home of Michelangelo's David). Then we kind of wandered until we found the Duomo again, which isn't hard with the small size of the city and the fact that Bernelleschi's dome absolutely dominates the town, and headed home for good. Overall, an amazing - and way more productive than I would have thought - first day.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bob & Deb in Paris

This Monday Bob and Deb arrived in Paris and brought me a plethora of goodies from America. Some stuff were thing I needed (like prescriptions), while others were things that are merely WAY too expensive to buy here (cashews) or unavailable all together (Jose Cuervo). It was like Christmas, but exacerbated by the fact that I hadn't had a Starburst or Twizzler since I've been here. I had to shew my parents out of my apartment about 30 minutes after they got here, unfortunately, because there plane was delayed and I was already cutting it close with my 1:30 class. I had fencing that evening as well, but met back up with B & D afterwards and we just hung around my apartment for a little while.

Yesterday, I went over to their hotel by Ecole Militaire (just east of the Eiffel Tower) and we went to breakfast in their neighborhood. Ironically we ate on Rue Clair, which is the street we stayed on when we came here seven or eight years ago. We had a nice little breakfast and then we went our separate ways since I had to go to ESCP for my afternoon class. They went on to Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame. We met back up after my class and we went out to dinner and grabbed some groceries to host a little preparty that night. Every Tuesday a big group of us go to this club near the Arc de Triomphe called Le Duplex, because on Tuesdays before 1am international students get free admission and buy one get one free. Since I had Tex-Mex materials for the first time in five weeks, I naturally had to host a Texas Tuesday before we all went out to the club. We bought a bunch of wine at the grocery store (just because we didn't have very much tequila) and then my mom made nachos while Cameron and Lauren whipped up some impromptu quacamole and I served up margaritas. A group of girls from our program gave over and we all hung out for awhile before my parents got tired and went home and we all left for the club.

Today, being Wednesday, I met them at their hotel for a late lunch. We went back across town to the Latin Quarter to go to this restaurant they read about, but they'd already closed from lunch and we had to just walk around and find a nearby boulangerie / cafe. From there, they rode the metro with me to ESCP and I showed them where I go to school. Since I had to go to international finance, I directed them down the road to the famous and massive St. Pierre cemetary. It houses a bunch of famous people like Jim Morrison in addition to Paris' elite and wealthy. After class ended at 8pm, I headed back down to the Latin Quarter for a second try with the restaurant we tried to go to earlier, the Coupe Chou. This time around we were able to get a table, and we were treated to an excellent meal. We got a bottle of white wine and a bottle of red to share, escargot as an appetizer, than we all had our own 3-course meal. I got the exact same thing as my mom: salmon with some interesting cream sauce, a beef and mushroom stew, and finally a creme brulee. It was all super good. After dinner we parted ways and I came home to get ready to go to Florence tomorrow. Check back in after the weekend for Florence stuff!

Sheep Cheese & Mozart (Bratislava and Vienna) Part II

We got into Vienna and headed straight for our lodging. One of the girls we've met through our program who goes to university in Vienna was going to be home for the weekend, so she was nice enough to offer for the three of us to crash at her apartment. Cameron, Lauren, and I cleaned up a little bit and then we all went out to a little nightclub underneath the metro.

The next morning I got up early to have a productive day before having to head back to Bratislava for my flight home. My plans were somewhat foiled when Ivonne and her boyfriend decided to make breakfast for the three of us, but I ended up being able to get out into the city around 11am, which is still earlier than the majority of the days I start on trips like this one. We started off in Stephansplatz and saw the Cathedral of St. Stephen, called Stephansdom. The old city is all pretty clustered together, so I walked through some of the nicer, ritzier shopping areas near Stephansplatz toward the Habsburg palaces. The series of buildings that made up the Habsburg areas were certainly something to behold; I walked through all the public areas outside and out into the massive grounds called the Hohengrasse (?), where Hitler made his famous speech after "victoriously" entering the city. It was a little bit weird to be standing in a place where a couple million people would've crammed together to get their 'heils' in.

We walked around the ring that surrounds the old city center for a little while longer and then stopped at Cafe Landstmann, which our friend Ivonne had recommended to us. I got an Austrian beer, Ottakringer, and a traditional wiener schnitzel. I thought it was going to be a sausage dish but it was a pan-fried veal flank served with a raspberry sauce. Very good regardless. After lunch, I hopped on the metro to go to the international bus station, hopped on a bus to Bratislava airport, and then caught my 6:30pm flight back to Paris.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sheep Cheese & Mozart (Bratislava and Vienna) Part I

We flew out of Paris Thursday afternoon to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. We took a bus from the airport to the main rail station and then a cab into the heart of downtown where our hostel was. We checked into the Golden Nugget room at Hostel Vegas, cleaned up a little bit, and set out to find the Slovak Pub. It was a traditionl pub restaurant that was recommended to us by a Slovakian friend at ESCP. We had to wait for a table, as it was exceptionally crowded even at 9pm, but then finally got seated at this massive family-style table in the very back room. We ordered a round of Zlaty Bezant - one of Slovakian's brews - and some traditional Slovak food. I got something called a Bryndszhovna - a breaded pork chop dish covered with sheep cheese and beets. About ten minutes into our meal, we were joined at our massive table by 16-18 Scotsman on a bachelor party. The bride's brother and father were at our end of the table and made for some hilarious conversation. They also took over buying the beers, which was nice. The waiter would come by and Blair, the brother that was directly next to us, would scream "Hey boy, tirty beers! Tirty!" We knew Slovakia was supposed to be expensive, but we about danced for joy when the bill came and it was 37 euros for three dinner plates and fifteen beers. After dinner, we followed the Scots around (at their request) to a few more bars and then returned to Hostel Vegas for the night.

The next day, we got out and say the city. We were told you could see everything worthwhile of old Bratislava in a day, so that's all we budgeted. We started off first for the Hrad Castle, which dominates the city from its position atop the lone mountain in the cityscape. However, from its position atop the lone mountain, it also gets the coldest winds, which made the 17 degree temperature all the more severe. The snow on top of the hill and in the castle gardens was amazing and really beautiful though, and Cameron and I enjoyed playing around in it like little kids. Lauren didn't want to get wet and cold, which definately happened to Cameron and I, but I think she missed out. We left the castle about an hour playing in the snow and freezing, found a local Slovakian pizzeria and got lunch. I got a bowl of mushroom soup and a sheep cheese & bacon pizza, all for about 8 euros. After we did another lap of the old city, we went back to the hostel and checked out. We went back to the central station and got on the hour-bus to Vienna. (To be continued...)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Back in Paris

This week we set out to complete the relatively daunting task of booking our spring break trip. We started off by considering four countries on three 13 days. We quickly realized that we wouldn't be able to do that and still enjoy the destinations, so we unfortunately cut Istanbul, Turkey off the list, keeping Athens, Cairo, and Jerusalem. The flights to / from Athens are not bad at all (about 70E), and Athens to Cairo isn't bad either (about 90E). However, anything with Tel Aviv is going to be super expensive. It's looking like about 240E to fly from Cairo to Tel Aviv, and there aren't very many (or safe, or reliable) alternative modes of transportation between the two, either. I guess no one wants to take a bus through the Gaza strip, for some reason.

We've gone ahead and booked our Paris-Athens flight and the Athens-Cairo flight, but we have to (1) figure out if there's any problems going from Egypt to Israel and (2) come to peace with ourselves and our parents about spending that much money for the third destination. We have to make sure that there are no travel restrictions coming into Israel from a hostile Muslim neighbor. I know that if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport, you're not allowed into Lebanon, Syria, Beirut, and the UAE, but I'm not sure if its a reciprocal thing or not. I'll have my questions answered when I go to the Egyptian consulate this week to discuss obtaining a travel visa. Apparantly Egypt is like Turkey where you can get a visa when you arrive at the airport, but we'd be much more comfortable having one in our possession prior to that.

I think that going to Jerusalem would be one of the coolest experiences ever, and I feel like at any other point in my life (assuming I even have the chance to go to Jerusalem again), it would be way more expensive than maybe 400E round trip. So I think I just need to suck it up and go. If I thought the Templar Church in London was an amazing spiritual experience, my head would probably explode in Jerusalem.

Other than that, a pretty uneventful week. Cameron, Lauren, and I hosted a little preparty last night before we met up with a bunch of people at a club on the Champs Elysees. Every tuesday is international student night at a discotheque called Le Duplex, so it's free admission (which is huge in Paris) and 9E for two drinks. Not a bad deal if you've had some wine beforehand. This Friday we're leaving for Bratislava, Slovakia and Vienna, Austria, so stay tuned for some more updates soon.

London Pt. 3

Sunday morning I got a very early start, mostly thanks to going to bed at a decent hour for once. I was planning on going to the early 8am communion service at Westminster Abbey, but when my phone alarm went off at 6:45 I couldn't bring myself to get out of bed quite yet. Lauren's apartment was freezing, as her heater was broken, so it was especially painful to get out of bed in the morning. I ended up getting up about 9 o'clock, got showered and changed and headed to Notting Hill Gate to catch the Metro downtown for church. I had just finished a hefty book about the history of the Knights Templar, so I knew that I had to attend a service in the 825-year old Temple Church when I was in London.

A lot of the stations and lines on the Underground are closed on weekends for construction (to get the city ready for the 2012 Olympics), so I had to get off at Westminster and walk a little ways to get to the Temple stop. I spent about 45 minutes walking northeast along the Thames on Victoria Embankment. I was planning on getting an English breakfast, but I hadn't considered that most places wouldn't be open on a Sunday morning, so I ended up having to settle for McDonald's. The only other place open was Starbucks and they're way overpriced overseas. After breakfast I found my way into the Inner and Middle Temple yards. During the time of the Knights Templar, these cluster of buildings and grounds on the north side of the Thames were used as a monastery along with the civic buildings that the Order required. However, after the Order was disbanded in the mid-1300s, lawyers and other professionals took over the grounds as the Order of the Middle Temple and the Order of the Inner Temple. These two organizations still maintain the Templar church today.

The church itself is absolutely incredible. It was built in 1185 with a circular rotunda intended to mimick the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the Order was founded and their headquarters maintained. In the 1200s the nave and sanctuary were added under the direction of Henry III. The fact that the church is still standing is a miracle, as well. Under pressure from Phillipe IV of France during the mid-1300s, the pope declared the Order of the Temple dissolved and encouraged Europe's monarchs to take possession of the extensive land and other assets the Order had accumulated. The majority of these monarchs laid waste to Templar churchs and buildings, but England stood up for the Order and thus have much more of their history still preserved than other nations. The church has been repaired numerous times over the years, including 17 years of construction after a Nazi fire bomb destroyed the roof of the rotunda in 1941.

After lunch, I walked around Covent Garden looking for another little gastro pub. I had a list of suggestions from a friend of my mom's, and ended up choosing one of them called the Sevens Stars. It was a tiny little place with four or five tables. I got a leventine pie (corned lamb, I believe) and another beer that I'd never heard of before. From there, I walked back up north to Russell Square and went to the British Museum again, making it through Ancient Greece, the Middle East, and Assyria. Then I went all the way back down to Westminster, attended a bare-bones evening service at Westminster Abbey, and went back to Lauren's.

We got a bunch of pizza and beer back at Lauren's to get ready for the Super Bowl party that was starting at 11pm London time. Around 10:30 we left Notting Hill and grabbed a cab downtown. The place we went to was this super cheesy American sports bar, where all of the people were wearing the wrong NFL jerseys. A bunch of teams were represented that didn't even make the playoffs this season, so it was both comical and frustrating to see the British trying to look like football fans. The game ended at about 3am, we took a cab straight to our bus stop, a bus to the airport, and then got on our 6am flight back to Paris just in time to make it to class Monday. Long day!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

London Pt. 2

Thanks to the evening prior, Saturday was also a late start to the day. Because we had missed Westminster Abbey's tour times by a hair the day before, that was our first stop. Lauren took off from work that day so she was able to accompany us. We grabbed a bagel to tide us over and went straight to the Abbey from home. The building is amazing inside, but unfortunately they have a strict no-photography policy. It took us about an hour to make it through the entire church and the cloisters outside. We saw all the kings' graves and other notable memorials, like those for Gregory Chaucer, Handel, Charles Darwin, and Sir Isaac Newton (featured in the Da Vinci Code movie).

After that, we headed north out of the government quarter toward Covent Garden to find somewhere to eat lunch. I was very much dismayed when Cameron and Lauren opted for Mexican food. (1) I knew that it would be Godawful Mexican food compared to what I'm used to, and (2) I didn't come to England to eat not-pub-food. But, I was outvoted and we went to Cafe Pacifico. From Covent Garden, we walked a little ways to Leicester Square to find some cheap theatre tickets for that evening. Cameron had never seen a musical (or a play, for that matter) before and Lauren and I decided he absolutely had to take advantage of being in the West End. We shopped around for a bit before finding 3 tickets together in the lower stalls for Wicked. It was 50 pounds, or about $72, but I thought that was reasonable for a show that I'd never seen before.

From Leicester Square, we walked north to Russell Square to go to the British Museum. Unfortunately we only had about an hour before the museum closed, so we had to restrict ourselves purely to the Egyptian exhibits. Their collection is definately impressive, probably because they had such a massive colonial presence there. I found out the next day, when I went back, that their Indian, Greek, and East Africa collections are equally impressive for probably the same reason.

After being kicked out of the British Museum (literally, they starting shutting the lights off while we were still inside), we made our way back down to the Thames for our 7:30 showing of Wicked at the Victoria Apollo theatre. We got a quick pint at another pub and then went to the show. Wicked is probably the last show that I hadn't seen but really wanted to, so I was definately pumped to see it. One of my teachers during my summer at NYU was an original cast member, so I was already pretty familiar with the music and dancing. Overall it was really great; not my absolute favorite, but that's only because I've seen a LOT of shows. Cameron, the musical first-timer, loved it, and that's all that's important!

We knew we wouldn't get much sleep at all the next night with the Super Bowl debuting at midnight, so we called it a night after the show and went back to Lauren for an uneventful end to the evening.

London Pt. 1

This weekend Cameron and I went to London to visit our friend from Texas, Lauren Bonds. We both know Lauren through the Undergraduate Business Council, and I'm really good friends with her cousin Jason from Country Day. Lauren moved to London full-time this past summer and now works for Royal Bank of Scotland. We got into London Luton airport on Thursday evening and took a train into St. Pancreas / King's Cross Station downtown. Lauren was going to be out of work real late, so Cameron and I hopped on the Underground and went to Covent Garden for dinner. We found a pub called the Long Acre and I got my fish and chips fix immediately. One thing that I initially noticed was that everything was so much cheaper than Paris; it was fantastic. I think I got a large fish and chips, a bowl of mushroom soup, and a pint of Staropramen for something like 11 pounds.

The next day we did primarily tourist things because Cameron had never been to London before. We strolled through Green and King James Gardens en route to Buckingham Palace from Lauren's flat in Notting Hill. We also noticed how, compared to Paris, London has exponentially more parks and public areas, which is really nice. We walked around the government quarter for awhile, going from Buckingham Palace to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then up to Trafalgar Square. We stopped off of Trafalgar Square for lunch, and I was able to have another English meal in a steak and ale pie. From there, we went back down the Victoria Embankment on the Thames and bought tickets for the London Eye. Luckily it was reasonably sunny and we were able to see everything from up top; that is, we were able to see all the places that we wouldn't have enough time to go see. By this point, it was getting close to sundown (we didn't have the earliest start to the day) and we headed back to Lauren's to take a quick nap and get showered and ready to go out for the evening.

We decided to forego the Underground on the way home and instead walked the entire way. In about a little over an hour's time, we walked back through the government quarter, back through King James and Green Park Gardens, and then through Hyde and Kensington Gardens as well. Definately made me jealous that (1) it's never warm enough to walk through Paris and (2) that Paris had the kind of gardens that London does.

That evening, after getting cleaned up back at Lauren's, we met her at Liverpool Street in the heart of London's financial district. From there, we went to one of her favorite Thai places for dinner, and then it was off to the Favela Chic club. We met some of Lauren's co-workers from RBS and stayed there for the duration of the evening. Just like Paris, though, the metros close at midnight and we were thus forced to take a very expensive cab home to the opposite side of the city.