Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Dumbass In Europe

Last August, our youngest daughter and her husband started 2 year contracts teaching 2nd and 3rd grade, respectively, at the American International School of Zagreb (Croatia). So we went to visit them. As their school is still in session, we figured we would just visit with them for a weekend, and spend a week before and after vacationing in Europe.

I had been to Europe 3 times before all on business: once for 3 days to Chamonix, France, at the base of Mont Blanc, for the users conference of one of our software distributors; once to London and Bristol, England -- my meetings in London were cancelled for 2 days, so I did get to do some sightseeing there; and once to Bristol. My wife had been to Europe -- Munich, Bavaria, and Venice -- for a week with some of her family ~25 years ago.

At the top of both my and my wife's bucket lists was: Paris. So on Saturday, May 18 at 3:30, we flew to Paris via Detroit, arriving at 8 am Sunday morning at Charles De Gaulle airport. We took a cab to our hotel (56 euros), the Hotel Eiffel Turenne. The room was tiny but the location was fabulous: on the Avenue de Tourville 1/2 block from the Ecole Militaire metro stop on the #8 metro line. That is also the southeast corner of the Champs du Mars -- two large blocks of former parade grounds, now park. At the center of the northwest boundary is the Eiffel Tower.

The nice lady at the hotel gave us a recommended walk: up the Champs du Mars to the Eiffel Tower; across the Seine to the Trocadero; then to the Arc de Triomphe; then down the Champs Elysses to Avenue de Winston Churchill; then between the Great and Small Palaces (museums) over the Alexander V bridge; then by Invalides (church) and back. It was a great walk, around 4.4 miles. The Arc de Triomphe is in the middle of a huge rotary that is called the Charles de Gaulle Etoile (star). 12 streets meet there, arranged very close to geometrically correct, with a 30 degree angle between. The Champs Elysses is amazing: 8 lanes of traffic with 20 yards of sidewalk on both sides. You wonder, where did all this space come from and you learn, in the 19th century they did indeed tear down large parts of the city to make way for these ultra-broad avenues. Also striking was the trees lining the Champs: 40-50 feet tall but squared on the sides and tops like hedges?!?!? There were also very pretty small public plantings. I remember one at Avenue de Franklin D. Roosevelt that had blue and purple wildflowers highlighted by white tulips.

We lunched at a place called Tribeca in the Rue Claire district, which was just a couple blocks north of our hotel. This was lots of street vendors selling all kinds of stuff. We had a list from a friend of our Brooklyn daughter who lives in Paris of restaurants to try, but we wound up mostly eating in cafes near the hotel or the place we were visiting. I had escargot twice -- excellent! -- lamb chops twice, shrimp twice, veal, mussels. Nothing very fancy at all, but all very edible.

At that point we'd had enough walking, so we hopped on a tour bus and rode around -- in the cold rain. It rained every day we were there, and temperatures were 45-55 degrees -- chilly! Being the dumbass I am, I went without a coat! So Tuesday I gave up and we bought me a jacket at an Adidas store on Champs Elysses.

Every place we were in Europe, black locust trees were in full bloom. That puts the climate about 3 weeks behind Lexington.

Monday we got up early and did the Louvre. 8 line to the 1 line on the metro -- we really found the Paris metro easy to use, and my wife had bought a Paris Pass thingy that included a 5 day metro pass. The Louvre is huge -- by far the biggest museum I've been in. After a couple of hours, we decided to go for The Biggies and call it a day. So we saw the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo and called it quits. We then took a boat ride on the Seine. Interesting views of the city.

Tuesday we got up early and did the Musee d'Orsay. The Louvre is the old stuff, Musee d'Orsay is the new stuff. Great impressionist collection on the 5th floor, Gaugin and Van Gogh on the 2nd floor. Lunch at a cafe across the street from the museum, then rode the metro to Champs Elysses to buy my jacket. Then we took the metro to Montmartre, and climbed up the last of the hill to the Espace Dali, which was small but had some nice Dali sculptures, and went into the Basilica of Sacre Couer, which has some beautiful architecture.

Wednesday we got up early (I'm noticing a pattern here -- but getting there 1st thing in the morning the lines were minimal -- later in the day they got very long) and took the C train 20 minutes southwest to Versailles. Did the indoors in the morning (Lifestyles of the Rich, Famous, and Decapitated), and the outdoors in the afternoon. Mercifully the afternoon was sunny and mild. We ate at Helio's Pub in Versailles. I had mussels mariniere. Interesting, very low garlic, mostly diced shallots and parsley in addition to the white wine. The waiter had been raised right by his mom to like heavy metal. He got busted by the manager when he put on some Rival Sons -- modern metal -- for us to hear.

Thursday we slept late, yay! We took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe and went up to the top. Great views down the 12 avenues. Then we took a tour bus to Ile de la Cite and saw Notre Dame. The area around Notre Dame was definitely the most touristy we found in Paris. I bought myself this fine Paris Metro map t-shirt for gigging.

We finished up with walking on Ile de St. Louis -- east of Ile de La Cite. Again very touristy, lots of quirky shops. The guide books said they had great ice cream there, and we'd wanted to have a crepe. So we had a late afternoon snack at Les Fous de l'Ile of bertillon ice cream (chocolate) on a crepe. The bertillon ice cream was almost like icing -- very rich. Les Fous had a fabulous collection of pictures, sculptures, and other art forms representing chickens.

We discussed a couple of times going to the top of the Eiffel Tower at night, but we'd done so well in avoiding long lines that we decided against it. We did walk the 1-1/2 blocks to Ecole Militaire to snap a pic.

Paris was, at the time, the most beautiful city I'd ever been in. The food was good. The Metro was great and easy to use. My wife and I both got to speak some French. The people were uniformly friendly and helpful.

Friday we took the metro back to CDG (9.5 euros for 2 tickets) for an 8:30 flight to Zagreb. So great to get to the baggage claim area and see our daughter there waiting for us with a big grin on her face!

We took a cab to their apartment. It is huge! A great big living room and two huge bedrooms, a central entry foyer, a smallish kitchen, 1-1/2 baths. And right on the #14 tram line.

We then went to see Christie's school. We got to meet her class -- so cute, and they all love Miss Christie so much! We dropped into Ian's classroom too.

That evening we dined with Christie, Ian, and 3 of their coworkers at a restaurant overlooking Zagreb named Sestinski Lagvic. Getting there we had the 1st of only 2 snafus on our trip: the cab driver taking us there followed his GPS the wrong way over and around a mountain instead of the direct route. So a 30 kuna cab ride became 160 -- and that was with him turning the meter off 3/4 of the way. He refused to take less, so we paid it. 5 kunas per dollar. So not optimal, but not so bad in the greater scheme of things.

The restaurant was beautiful with a great view. Here's the party: Christie is next to her mom.

So the traditional Croatian dinner was: cheese; roasted vegetables; and big plates of meat. I think we had beef and rabbit, maybe? Very little seasoning, but there are dishes of ivar (sp?) -- a fairly bland red bell pepper and eggplant mix -- to use as a sauce.

Saturday we took the trolley to downtown Zagreb. At the central square (with the statue) there was some marketing-type thing going on with women racing in high heels -- ugh. The open air market was great, tons of fresh food. We wandered around, and the high point for me was encountering the Nikola Tesla statue.

That evening we ate at a somewhat more upscale restaurant called Trilogiya. The changed their menu daily depending on that the chefs found shopping at the market that day. I don't remember what I had but it was quite a bit tastier than the night before.

Sunday Christie and Ian rented a car and Ian drove us to Rovinj on the Adriatic Sea on the Istra peninsula. It was (of course) rainy as we left. At one point we came through a tunnel and said "Look at those pretty white flowers" -- but it was snow! But finally, we came through a tunnel near Rijeka on the coast to bright sunshine and a beautiful day.

We walked around the peninsula that makes up most of Rovinj, climbing tiny winding streets up to the church at the top. Here's the view from the north side.

Here's a tiny, winding street.

Here's the Rovinj assault team.

Then we had lunch at a great restaurant named La Puntulina. We ordered a cold seafood appetizer plate and it came out with 8 kinds of seafood, all very tasty. Ian had a mussels mix that I snitched some of -- there was one type of mussel that was closed until you pulled out a little key-like section of shell, after which you could open it -- we didn't figure it out until the waitress showed us. I had a warm octopus goulash dish, very good. Then Ian and I chilled in a cafe while Christie and her mom shopped.

After the drive back to Zagreb, we had dinner at Christie and Ian's neighborhood restaurant, Pivnica Mlarnica. I had a mixed grill, good sausages and more meat! From Zagreb on, meat was pretty much what was for dinner.

Zagreb was quite a change from Paris. Downtown Zagreb had some old architecture, the rest had that soviet bloc look to it. The people seemed dour, particularly the older ones. You were not to raise the issue of their civil war when they fought the Serbs to exit Yogoslavia in 1993. And I felt like I was able to understand basically 0 of their slavic language. No common roots you could discern. Da and Ne for Yes and No. Hvala for Thank You.

Christie and Ian had started one class in Croatian but had a horrible teacher. They are trying again, but I'm guessing they'll have learned enough Croatian to be useful just about when it's time to come home.

Monday morning, Christie and Ian took us to the train station, and we caught a 7:30 train to Vienna. What a pleasant difference it is to travel by train. You find your car, you stow your bags, the train leaves. At some point a conductor wanders through and stamps your ticket, and border patrol (for Croatia and Slovenia) come through and stamp your passport. No standing in line for bags or security, emptying pockets, getting frisked, etc. Zagreb to Vienna was 6.5 hours. I booked it 1st class to see the difference. I think we actually liked 2nd class better (on the leg from Vienna to Prague). We had a compartment to ourselves with a door that closed. 1st class had bigger seats, but it was in an open car -- with only 1 other passenger. Both trains had a food car, with the standard coffee machine, and food in plastic bags.

But, bad news, after the 6.5 hour train ride, I had 4-5 hours of landsickness. The rocking of the train pretty much like the rocking of a boat, I guess. After drinks, dinner, and sleep, it was gone, but, still, this implies I probably cannot sleep on a train without risking weeks of landsickness afterwards :-(

Just over the Austrian border there were snow-capped mountains to the west.

In Vienna we took a cab to Lindner Hotel am Belvedere -- 20 euros I think. The hotel seemed very new and was very nice. It was 3 short blocks from the entrance to The Belvedere, an old palace turned into a museum. Lots of Klimpt, who was Austrian, good stuff. Very nice fountains, which were turned on -- the fountains at Versailles had all been turned off. That evening we ate at a somewhat upscale place named Huth. Great appetizer, stewed beef heart -- sliced very thin in a mushroom sauce with small morels. I had some big morels from the Mountain Mushroom Festival a few years ago -- 4-5 inches long -- and I didn't particularly feel they were worth the price or the trouble. These were about 1 inch long, and gave a mouthful of tangy mushroom goodness, delicious! My entree was calf's liver, which was OK.

That night we had tickets to the Mozart Orchestra at Musikverein Golden Hall. It was the only thing playing while we were in town. 30 pieces, with a baritone and a soprano for the operatic pieces. Mostly single pieces and songs -- the most they did of one thing was 2 movements of a clarinet concerto. Then "Blue Danube Waltz" and an audience participation hand clapping thing at the end. Pretty popish, but I enjoyed it, and the hall was beautiful.

Tuesday we slept a little late and then walked through the Botanical Gardens of the University of Vienna, which were also around 2 blocks from our hotel. We lunched at a local corner cafe -- I ordered the lunch special, which turned out to be a ribeye with some veggies. We then took a bus tour of the city. I didn't pick a very good one. We saw a bit of their old city, then headed to a panoramic vista location, and then switched to a boat and cruised on the Danube. Also got to go through a lock that lowered us 4 meters to the level of the Danube Canal. The tour left us off in the central city. We'd been having a running joke that I kept identifying domes as astronomical observatories. Here is an actual observatory dome on the canal in Vienna.

We walked back to the hotel via the city park, which was pretty, and saw some outdoor, basketball court-sized soccer fields with some intense games going on. We ate at a restaurant on the way, I had wiener schnitzel -- dry as always -- but it came with german potato salad that was excellent. Later the bartender at the hotel was giving me tips on how to make good german potato salad like that.

1-1/2 days was not near enough to do Vienna justice. It is also a very beautiful city. I got to speak a little German. And we were back on euros again.

In Paris and Zagreb, there was no tipping. There was no place for a tip on credit card slips. Vienna was back to tips. But at the small restaurant where we had lunch, the waitress said "that's too much!" The next restaurant told us 10% is the max you're supposed to do there. At the next stop, Prague, it was tipping again, at 15%.

Another oddity in Vienna was this: at our lunch in the neighborhood restaurant, when the waitress came to tally our check (die rechnung), she opened our bread basket and asked how many pieces of bread we had eaten. We were then charged for those. Similarly, in Prague I think, the bill came with 2 euros for "couvert" -- basically a cover charge, to cover bread, water, or you just sitting in the restaurant!

Wednesday morning we took a cab back to the train station and caught a 8:30 train to Prague. It was a 5 hour trip. In the Prague train station, I got Czech korunas from the ATM -- 20 per dollar. Plus we found the taxi stand easily -- in Vienna we came out the wrong entrance of the station or something and wandered a few blocks in a circle before we found the cabs.

We took a cab to the Red Lion Hotel -- 285 korunas. This near the top of the hill across the river from the Old Town, and around 2 blocks from the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral that dominates the Prague skyline. So that afternoon we walked around St. Vitus. It is truly impressive. It looks bigger than Notre Dame on the inside. It was only completed in the 19th century.

We were supposed to meet my old friend/WRA Pavel Platchky for drinks, but he stood us up. So we ate at the Red Lion. I had smoked pork (== ham, duh), with red and white cabbage and very good potato gnocchi.

Thursday we wandered down the hill and crossed the Charles Bridge -- statues on both sides very 30 feet -- into the Old Town. It is amazing. Domes, spires, statues, paintings, frescos everywhere. Absolutely beautiful, it beats Paris. After a while you kind of go, OK, enough already, and then you see more awe-inspiring architecture.

After getting worn down by mid-afternoon, we took a cab back to the Charles Bridge and wound up in the Kampa Park restaurant looking over the Vltava River -- which was up 1/2 meter at the time, and flooded a couple of days later. Hunh, website says the restaurant is currently closed due to the flooding. I had a wild garlic soup with black trumpet mushrooms and parmesan that was delicious. But, with the bad weather, their patio was closed, and they were booked solid for dinner, so they kicked us out.

We went back up the hill, where the people at the Red Lion refused to recommend another restaurant to us ?!?!? ("eat here again"). We did hook up with Pavel for dinner at a restaurant a few doors up the hill, it was nice to see an old friend.

So Paris held the mantle as Most Beautiful City for only a week. Prague has much more striking architecture. The area of Prague we were in and Old Town were completely tourist traps: restaurants, cafes, shops, thai massage, nightclubs, theaters. Coming back up the hill one night we hear just a drummer playing, mostly bass and tom toms, and it's coming from a club with 6-7 very provocatively dressed young women standing out front smoking, and a fire eater performing inside to the music.

Prague is Pinochio's home town? There were lots of marionette shops, and the Marionette Theatre was performing "Don Giovanni".

And lots of tourists. Big Japanese tour groups. Menus were in Czech, English, German, Russian, and sometimes Italian. But the city is so beautiful that you don't care, it seems right for it to have worshippers from all over the world.

Czech was another slavic language. Ano for Yes, Ne for No. After 2 days I was still struggling to remember that Thank You was Dekuji.

Friday morning, May 31, I got up at 4:30 to take a cab to the airport for a 7:10 flight home via Paris and Detroit. Here begins trip snafu #2. Prague was completely fogged in. We left 2 hours late and missed our connection in Paris. They put us on a flight 2.5 hours later, not so bad. We left Detroit 1 hour late waiting on crew. We got to Lexington and circled for 1/2 hour while they tried to move an airplane with a flat tire that was blocking the runway?!?!? Never heard of that before! Of course, they finally give up, fly us to Cincinnati, and bus us back to Lexington. So we get home at 1am instead of 5pm, and our bags don't get here until late afternoon the next day. But we did make it home.

So overall, weather was lousy, cold and rainy, but it was nice when we did the gardens at Versailles, and when we were at Rovinj on the Adriatic. I think 4 countries in 2 weeks is probably 2 too many. Of course most of the people there speak English, but we both seemed to want to make some effort to learn a little bit of their language, and 2 days is not near enough, particularly for slavic languages. So I think we're likely to target romance language countries, particularly French-speaking, in the future.

Money management: best was my Capitol One credit card, which did straight-up currency conversions with no fees. Good was my ATM which came through the Shazam system and appeared to be doing pretty much straight up currency conversions as well. Bad was AAA, which charged us 8% for euros to take over there, and the currency place in Detroit, which charged 15% and $7.95 to convert our euros back into dollars -- ugh. Also good was our hotel in Prague, who changed euros into koruna at the going rate with no fees.

Drinking in Europe: in Paris they had martinis on the menus -- I guess they put Vermouth in them, they didn't taste right and were very small. No bourbon in Paris at all?!?!? The place in Versailles had Wild Turkey and Four Roses. Mostly drank red wine there. In Zagreb, red wine or beer. The Croatian and Bosnian red wines we had were very good. In Vienna, white wine and beer -- I started having a beer with lunch there. And the 1st beer on some menus was often a weiss beer, yum! Unbelievably, our hotel bar had Maker's Mark, Bullit, Blanton's, a couple other bourbons, and Sazernac rye. In Prague, mostly drank beer as well.

The 2 weeks went by quickly, and we were both glad to get home. It will be interesting to see what our next travel destination is. Maybe St. Martin in February? We'll see, I guess.

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