Monday, June 23, 2008

Day 34: Goodbye, Europe! (My Survival Tips)

First of all, this is the last in my series of posts on Europe. I will be back to techie stuff after this one. I thank you all for indulging me; I always love creating original content so I definitely enjoyed putting up pictures that weren't of me (mostly) but helped give people a flavor of these various, beautiful cities. I don't do very many series (the last one I did may have been for ACL in 2006), so this was always quite unique. The next post I write will be about securing your system, and then after that I'll go back to tech news coverage. I imagine my next post to be out by Thursday, and then I'll start with the tech news again probably next Tuesday or Wednesday. I'm hoping that in the midst of trying to move in to my new place in Seattle I can still get back to at least a weekly schedule and hopefully biweekly after I'm settled in.

I have a couple of pictures to share with you, but if you want to see more then just scroll down below this post and you'll see over a hundred of my favorites from the past 33 days.

We went to the International Street Festival in Sindelfingen on Saturday, which is the suburb of Stuttgart that my cousin lives in, and it was great! It's the only street festival Sindelfingen has all year, but various places around Germany have similar ones throughout the summer and people just drive to them on the weekends and enjoy them. It had a lot of great food and live music. I had some great spatzle with vegetables, a kabob stick holding bananas and strawberries coated in dark chocolate, pizza with bacon and potatoes, and a brat. What I didn't know about the brats is that this is how they cook them:

Isn't that interesting? It reminds me kind of how Mongolians grill their food. It's just a bit circular plate on an open fire. It was very delicious. The other picture I have to share is my cousin's cherry tree:

Apparently, when this type of cherry is black then it's ready to eat, and these are already quite sweet as they turn a dark maroon. It's amazing how well things seem to grow here, or maybe more people have green thumbs. I've probably seen more roses in Europe during this trip than in my entire life because they have these bushes with literally hundreds of rose buds and other types of flowers and greenery plus apple and cherry trees like that one.

Anyway, onto the tips. Over the trip I learned a lot of random stuff about Europe that I didn't know before. I'm going to list them here just in the order that they appear in my head, and some will apply to all of Europe whereas some will be for certain places (I'll specify this where necessary). I hope you find this interesting and informative, or else I encourage you to put up your own list ;)

  • Do your homework. Be smart: plan out your trip in advance. Get travel books so you can read up on where you're going and figure out what you want to do. The Frommer's series is excellent for a general look at not only hot spots but stuff that's off the beaten path. It has restaurant and hotel recommendations and maps, as well, but the maps usually aren't too detailed. It reads like you're talking to a friend so they're definitely fun to read. If you get a big one like Europe, note that it'll focus on big cities. If you want to check out small towns in Germany, get one on Germany (but the Europe one has Romantic Road stops as well). Also, their 3 star rating system is great: if a sight has 3 stars then you should almost definitely check it out. Another great series is the Eyewitness Travel Guides. They literally double as museum guides/maps. They're full of not only key maps and subway/bus maps but up close hand-drawn maps for neighborhoods and plazas and such pointing out interesting things. It pointed out a lot of stuff in Italy that I totally would not have noticed otherwise.

  • Europe is expensive. Make no mistake about it, most things cost more here than in the U.S.. The exceptions are beer in places like Germany and wine and cheese in some places (namely, Italy and France). The euro is stronger than the dollar and the current rate is above 1.6 dollars for a euro. Even quick, takeaway meals (you buy the food and take it with you rather than sitting there and eating) will run you 5 euros. A good meal will probably run you more like 12-15 euro when you include drink. Hotels are crazy expensive, and it ran us like $150 a night on average for a room for 3 at 2.5/3 star places. And these places are more like a 2/2.5 star in the US. Why are prices so high? Sometimes its just normal market forces, but sometimes its the extreme unionization of Europe. So when you're paying 13.50 euro to see the palace at Versailles, understand that part of the high price is paying high wages (in Germany they have 30 hour workweeks and like 7 weeks paid vacation every year).

  • Bring change to the restroom. Many toilets you encounter are not free, even at restaurants (including McDonald's). If you see a sign about it or a person sitting outside the toilet or a towel boy/girl, then you have to pay 0.30-0.50 euro. I know, it's ridiculous because we're used to them being free, but a lot of times restaurant restrooms are free if you eat there so you may want to run in a cafe and get a cheap drink if you need to use the restroom. Oh, and in Paris, you can use the Louvre restroom for free without buying a ticket, you just have to go through security.

  • Water is usually not free. Most americans are used to drinking tap water when they go to a restaurant, but Europeans don't drink tap water even though it's typically potable. You'd be smart to buy a couple of cheap bottles at a grocery story (it can be like 0.30 euro for a huge bottle) and carry it in a backpack with you, very few places disallow water bottles (for us, only the Uffizi did, and they didn't check our bag for it). In some places, especially Rome, you will find fountains just on the street that look really old but are still functioning and in Rome they actually produce fresh spring water. Keep an eye out for those because restrooms do not come with water fountains.

  • Watch your pockets in crowded areas. In places like Paris, Rome, Florence, and Berlin, pickpockets are common. You don't have to worry about it in smaller cities and towns and stuff, but the big tourist cities that are fraught with crowds are often also fraught with petty thieves. In a way, it's nice that petty crime is a bigger issue than violent crime because the opposite is true in the U.S.. Anyway, keep your wallets in your front pocket (guys) and watch your purses (ladies) because thieves will slit the bottom of your purse. I recommend keeping most of your money in a money belt around your stomach and keeping very little on hand. In the worst case, you can run to a restroom to pull out more money from it if you run out in your wallet. If you think that you're too careful to have your wallet stolen, you need to realize that these people are professionals. I would just keep my hand in my pocket when I was on a crowded bus or subway and that worked pretty well. One guy picked my dad's pocket that had trash in it and then grabbed my wallet pocket on the outside while pretending to fall over onto me, and he knew we figured him out so he scurried off the bus. We should've known he was bad news though when he pushed a lady holding a baby to get a seat on the bus so he could better do his work.

  • Be vigilant of scams. Again, this is common in places like Rome and Paris that are full of tourists. Sometimes the con artists will look like tourists also, but often time they look seedy. Not to be racist, but a lot of the con artists you see in Paris happen to be Nigerians and a lot of the ones in Rome happened to be Bangladeshi. One scam is to pretend to drop a ring and ask you if it's yours while their team picks your pocket (while you're distracted). Another scam, which we fell for, are non-uniformed people at a ticket machine for the subway "helping" you buy your ticket from a machine using their credit card (and then you pay them cash), but you end up getting a child's subway ticket. Another scam involves them putting string around your wrist to distract you while others pick your pocket. These scams are rarely pulled off by one guy and often involve a group of people.

  • You don't have to tip, but cover may be required. All across Europe, service is included in the price of your meals. In fact, some places even have a cover charge. Why? Because Europeans are people watchers who love to sit at restaurants all day and may just order a cup of coffee. To help cover the cost of them just sitting there on that table, many places will charge a cover, which also helps cover the service charge. So if a restaurant offers takeaway, food may cost more if you sit down rather than take it with you. You only need to tip if service was really exceptional, which for us was very rare. Because...

  • Service is typically not very fast. In countries like Germany and Austria, meals are 1-2 hour affairs. Food doesn't come out very quickly at all. Food comes out quicker in places like Italy and France, but wait staff are often not very attentive so you have to grab them if you need something or want the check because most restaurants will have a couple of people service the entire restaurant since they're salaried employees and that's not cheap. This is good in some ways though because, unlike America, they don't ask you every 5 minutes if everything is ok; you can eat your meal in peace.

  • Be prepared to walk, whatever the climate. Everywhere that we went, we had to walk a lot. This is especially true in places like Paris and Vienna where much of the experience is just walking around and enjoying the architecture and views. In the summer, don't think that it'll always be hot or always be cold. It's been fairly hot here (like 31 degrees celsius) but also pretty cold (as low as 14 degrees celsius), so bring some light jackets with you (and umbrellas), but if you're traveling in the summer it'll probably be hotter more often than not (especially in July/August).

  • A/C is a joke. Most hotels and restaurants do not have a/c, but usually do have heaters. This is not because it's not necessary, but rather because in the places where it gets really hot people are in denial about global warming. It can get quite hot, but people just buy fans and leave their windows open. The problem with A/C is that the law in many places is that you can't set your thermostat to more than 10 degrees below the outside temperature. This means that it's still rather hot inside, and heat rises so the higher you are in a hotel the worse it'll be (though if you're on the top floor you may have ceiling windows, which we had in Vienna). Note that some hotels that have a/c do not have windows that open, so that's a bad deal overall.

  • Check your electronics. The plugs in Europe are different, so you'll have to buy a converter (my cousin had them so I don't know where to buy them, sorry). Before you plug anything in though, make sure that it can handle 220 Volts at 50 Hz, lest you blow a fuse.

  • Internet is not plentiful. Don't expect hotels to give you free wi-fi, you often have to pay for it and many places don't have a computer for you to use so you need your own. The good news is that there are Internet cafes, and I've gotten it for as little as 1.5 euros an hour.

  • Each country has its own keyboard. It's super annoying. But if you're a touch typist like me, then look at the bottom right corner, before the taskbar icons, for the country code (e.g. "DE" for Germany). If you click on it, you can change it to "EN" for the American style keyboard. Obviously your keyboard won't physically change, but all the key mappings will be for an American keyboard. Note that it will only apply the change for the window you're in, so if you have multiple windows open and you click around between them then you'll probably have to change it back to "EN" because it'll default to the host country in the meantime. Ask the cafe owners though if they have an American-style keyboard though, some actually do.

  • Austrian toilets are weird. You can see a video of what it looks like here. It has a raised area above where the water is, kind of like a waterfall I guess, so when you go number two it just sits there on top (not in the water), which stinks up the bathroom for longer than a normal toilet would. Plus, I imagine it'd be problematic if you took a big one. If you know why they design their toilets in this strange way, please comment.

  • Don't touch the fruit. If you see fruit vendors on the street, sometimes they have a "you touch it, you bought it" policy. So just point out the fruit you want and let them touch it. If you touch it and it's too expensive, you're out of luck.

  • Trains are great and usually affordable. Trains between Florence and Pisa were like 10 euros round trip and between Paris and Versailles it was like 5 euros round trip. Even for longer distances though they're typically cheaper than airlines and you get to enjoy a great view. The only problem are the sleeper trains, where it can get cramped and hard to sleep. Be wary of doing a sleeper train, and be aware that they'll probably take your passport if you're going through a non-EU country so that the conductor can hand them over rather than waking you up.

  • The roads are narrow. If you're going to drive in Europe, be wary of the roads being narrow and having twisting turns, especially on mountains. In fact, I'd recommend getting a GPS for the trip. We would've been so screwed without a GPS. Anyway, it'll take a few days to get used to driving in Europe, so just keep that in mind. Plus, in some cities (like Brussells and Paris), it's stupid to drive in unless you've driven in areas like that or Romania or India before.

  • Cops won't pull you over for speeding in Germany. This is part of the legendary autobahn: you can go 100+ mph and no one cares. Just look out for signs warning you of cameras, because they do have that in place in certain areas. Driving in Germany can definitely be fun if you enjoy speeding.

  • Pedestrians often cross the street without looking. You have to always be vigilant of pedestrians. In some places, the cross walk is a striped line in the street that has no signal light so pedestrians have the right of way and it's your job to stop for them.

  • Paris transit shuts down early. By 8:30 PM the buses stop running and by 1:15 AM the subway stops. Some of the RER lines end before that so be sure to not be out past 10PM without a plan of how to get back home.

  • In some places, you have to buy your bus/subway ticket in advance. In the U.S., you can usually just bring change to a bus but in several places in Europe, like Rome and Florence, you have to go to a tabacco (Tabac) shop and get your tickets. They also sell passes, usually, for a whole day or multiple days. The one day passes are usually not for 24 hours, but until the end of the day (for Vienna, oddly, they were for 24 hours).

  • Check with your hotel for maps and restaurants. If you did what we did and go to multiple cities, don't worry too much about buying a map because your hotel should have one. If you're not staying in a hotel there, then you need to pick up a tourist map from a convenience shop somewhere. Also, 9 times out of 10, your hotel concierge knows of a great place to eat nearby, so tap them for that information.

  • Be wary of guided tours. This is not to slam guided tours, but they'll sometimes try tactics like "if you wait in this line it's 2 hours but if you come with me then you can go in right now." They're half correct: most guided tours for museums and palaces and such do get priority entrance, but often lines aren't that long. Same with reservations: you may have to pay 4 euros extra for a museum reservation, but then you lose flexibility because it has a time attached to it. Just plan for an hour to wait in line because most museums won't hae you wait in line longer than that and often the guided tour people exaggerate the wait (especially at St. Peter's Basilica). If you want a guided tour, then that's fine, but they're not cheap and you can't go at your pace until after the tour. I recommend the audioguide unless a guided tour is required (like at Schloss Neuschwanstein).

  • Leave a day for the Louvre. That is, if you go to Paris. It is more than you can possibly see in a day, trust me. Do yourself a favor and get the multimedia guide, too, so that you don't have to shuffle around with a map. It's not all that intuitive where the collections are and the guide has tour routes on it.

  • See the Vatican Museum before St. Peter's Bsilica. That is, if you're in Rome and want to see them. The line for the Basilica goes super fast, but the museum line takes longer. Plus, the museum will take you several hours whereas the Basilica will probably only take you an hour. But when you go to the Basilica, head for the crypt first (it feeds into the church).

  • Yeah, people kiss each other as a greeting. I know in the U.S. it's associated with being stuck up, but usually people here do kiss each other on the cheeks to say 'hi'. Just be aware of that

  • There's a lot of nude art here. Be aware that any art museum you go into is most likely going to have nude art. So if that bothers you, then deal with it or don't go see the amazing, priceless art that Europe has to offer.

  • Take breaks and have fun! The most important thing is to have a good time. Don't plan a marathon trip where you're totally exhausted by the end of it: plan for days where you just laze around in cafes or in a beautiful park. Do what you want to do and not necessarily what people think you should be doing. If you hate sculptures then don't go to the Rhodin museum in Paris, but if you love impressionist art then definitely check out the D'orsay instead.

All in all, I really enjoyed Europe. Having to go with my parents was a bit of a challenge simply because our tastes sometimes collide and I'm more willing to go on long walks or go up hundreds of steps than they are, which is understandable because they're definitely getting pretty old now and need to watch out for their health. I was glad to have the opportunity to get this first look at Europe so that I know what to expect and next time can not only be better prepared but go to places like Rome and Paris and do off-beat things rather than the touristy stuff. I highly recommend going to Europe on a vacation and really just enjoying the easygoing European lifestyle while making some cessions for a few tourist excursions. You don't need to know the language in most places, just go online and look up the important phrases ("Do you speak English", greetings, "thank you", "check please", "how much is this", etc.). Then, learn the languages as you go! It doesn't take long in Germany to realize that "ausfahrt" is exit and that "verboten" means forbidden. Just make sure you look up pronunciations (like 'v' in German is really pronounced like an 'f', and 'ch' in Italian is pronounced like 'k'). Aside from just the language, you just learn a lot about how other people live and I definitely think it makes you, subconsciously, a better person overall because it reduces your level of ignorance. Plus, Europe is gorgeous and unique in the amount of history it has, so really leave some time to take it all in and enjoy yourself!

The next time I post I will be back in the U.S., assuming everything goes to plan. Bye bye!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Days 26-31: The Last Road Trip

Note: The pictures are small to help with the load time of this page, but just click on them to enlarge them to their high resolution glory. Oh, and the normal tech news commentary will return after my vacation.

Our European vacation is coming to a close very soon, and we're not going to be making any big trips before we leave on Tuesday so this will be my last major round-up of pictures. I took less than 400 pictures, but still only whittled it down to 40 pictures to share with everyone.

On Sunday, we headed for Lucerne, Switzerland. The beauty of this small country was apparent quite quickly:

Lucerne had a really cool, old bridge from the 14th century that offered a great view of the city from right in the middle of it:

We went to a Jesuit church (Jesuitenkirche) that was very near the bridge (though not pictured above), and it had a really interesting style to it; different from any other European church we had seen. I believe it was built in the 17th century. This will give you an idea of the style they followed:

Our focus for the day, however, was on getting to the top of Mount Pilatus. I believe that we were up 2,132 meters by the time we reached the top. First, we had to take a boat across the water, which was quite scenic. The day was overcast and rainy so you'll have to excuse my pictures. Everywhere the boat went, you saw small towns on hills like this:

Here's a closer shot of some homes right on the water:

We then had to board a cogwheel railway car to go up the mountain!

It was hard to take pictures to really show how steep the tracks were, so this was the best I could do:

Basically, the train used cogwheels to pull itself up the mountain on the tracks. I think that this is a very new railway system. The problem, however, was that it was a nasty day outside so this is what we were treated to once we reached the top:

The real beauty was really during the train ride, during which taking pictures were hard. We did see the world's largest horn at the top though:

Can you say 'ricola'? We took a gondola to get back to the ground, and this should give you an idea of how far up we were:

Even from that high up though, you could still hear the cowbells that are so popular in Switzerland and Austria:

Despite being overcast, the view was still quite nice:

The hotel we stayed in was pretty cool, and when we took a walk before dinner we encountered some interesting-looking cows:

Anyone know the name of this breed of cattle? They were rather cute and they were really hairy!

The next day, we headed to Schloss ("Castle") Neuschwanstein (in Germany), which is what inspired the design of the Cinderella's castle that has become associated with the Disney brand. We took a carriage ride up the hill to get there because it would be a 40 minute uphill walk otherwise (or a bus ride plus a 15 minute uphill walk, which my mom didn't want to do).

It was hard to take a picture to capture that it really did seem like kind of a fairy tale castle (especially because it was overcast, again), but here's my best shot at it:

King Ludwig II definitely had a great view from the castle (though he spent less than a year there and only completed 1/3 of it):

We headed to Garmisch, Austria that night to stay at the Edelweiss Lodge (an armed forces resort, thanks to my cousin), but the weather was still overcast there as it remained the next day. On the way there, we stopped at a beautiful babbling brook:

The next day was still overcast and rainy, so we went briefly to Berchesgaden (in Germany) to check out a retreat that was given to Hitler for his 50th birthday at Obersalzberg, but couldn't see much from there. We went to Salzburg, Austria that night.

Several scenes from The Sound of Music were actually filmed in Salzburg, so we started out with the Mirabell Gardens. It was quite beautiful and you could see many rose bushes that looked like this:

Roses seem to grow so well in Germany and Austria, for some reason. If you're a big fan of the movie, you probably notice scenes from the "Do Re Mi" song as you walk around.

Something unique we saw as we walked around the city were these buildings that are pressed up against the mountains:

Inside the mountain, at one point, we actually encountered a museum. Another interesting fact about Salzburg is that it was the birthplace of Mozart, which they definitely take advantage of. He even has his very own chocolate there:

If you can get your hands on one, they're very delicious. The dominant piece of architecture in the middle of the city is the Salzburg Cathedral, which was definitely quite beautiful. In front of the altars along the sides of the church, you could see this on the ceilings:

The crazy thing is that each one is different! The baroque interior and exterior architecture of this church was just really incredible and impressive. After some searching, we came across the Nonnberg Abbey, which was also made famous by The Sound of Music. You may recognize the below gates as the one the children came across and where they talk to the Mother Superior. As the movie portrays, the walls of the abbey do make it rather difficult to find the entrance.

As we left the Abbey, we ran into some interesting graffiti:

On our way to the Fortress Hohensalzburg, which we ended up not going to, we got a pretty good view of the Salzburg Cathedral:

Euro Cup was going on and that banner being on the Cathedral should give you an idea of how serious the Europeans take their soccer. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Spain was playing Greece that day (the Euro Cup was only being played in select cities in Austria and Switzerland and will continue for the next couple of weeks). There were definitely more Spanish fans around than Greek fans, or at least that's how it seemed. Cops are everywhere to keep the peace, but I even saw fans fanatic enough to dress up in full Bavarian garb but with Spanish colors on their outfit. Cars in the street everywhere were adorned with the flags of the countries they supported, and opposing countrymen would often honk at them. Also, Salzburg (and Vienna) had "fanzones" set up with enormous projections of games and plenty of street vendors. The energy was definitely tangible, and that was a fun experience, though it sometimes interfered with us seeing things.

We went to Vienna, Austria the next day and saw their Dom cathedral, but I liked the outside better than the inside:

The inside was dominated by an art display that was supposed to symbolize an angel, I think.

The streets in Vienna definitely had a different feel for Salzburg because it was a big city, and it had street performers and everything like Paris and Rome. People were everywhere though because of the Euro Cup and normal tourism. Fortunately, the public transit system there, like many other cities in Europe, was quite good so we had no trouble getting around.

We walked around the Stadtpark for a while and I thought this family of ducks was cute:

There was even a little duck bath:

We had lunch at a biergarten in the park where my dad ordered an actual Budweiser since it's an Austrian beer who's name was stolen by the American Anheuser-Busch company.

It was rather hot outside (a nice change of pace from the rain), but we still pressed on to the Hapburg Palace (Schloss Schönbrunner):

We tried to take in more of the city's architecture afterward, but were held back by the obtrusive fanzone for the Euro Cup. The Euro Cup did lead to this neat outdoor display though:

And finally, yesterday we went back to Berchtesgaden since the weather had cleared up. We went all the way up to Eagle's Nest ("Kehlsteinhaus"), which was the Hitler retreat I mentioned before (though he only went up there a few times). I know, it seems weird that they kept it, but they turned the Eagle's Nest into a restaurant and some other Nazi buildings that were up around Berchtesgaden were blown up over 60 years ago. It's not hard to see why this one was kept:

The best elevator we had been in the entire trip was the one going to the Eagle's Nest and traveled 124 stories! We had to take a bus up to a tunnel that led to the elevator. The name is apt because we did see eagles up there; it's 1,834 meters above sea level. The thinner air was tangible, though it wasn't immediately noticeable to me. We were able to walk to get a better panoramic view.

It was a little hazy up there, but still very beautiful:

On the side opposing the Austrian alps you could see Germany at its best:

We headed back to Stuttgart afterward and got some groceries for dinner. I have to end my slew of pictures with some puerile humor that I encountered at the store:

I hope you enjoyed the pictures! I've now shared over 140 pictures here, and I cherish the 1,000+ I've taken over the trip so I'll probably pick up a couple of digital frames in a few weeks and set them up with those pictures. If you want to see more of my pictures, you're going to have to find me in person. You must be pretty masochistic to submit yourself to even more pictures from this trip though after the ridiculous number I've put online as it is.

I'll probably make one more post here in a day or two before we head back with any leftovers pictures I may take between now and then, but I'll mainly be using that post to share lessons we've learned from our trip in case you're planning your own vacation in Europe. Have a great weekend everyone!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Days 20-23: Paris (+ Versailles)

Note: The pictures are small to help with the load time of this page, but just click on them to enlarge them to their high resolution glory. Oh, and the normal tech news commentary will return after my vacation.

If you did not see my pictures from Italy (and from a few day trips we took from Stuttgart), then be sure to check out this post under this one for another 40 pictures. Be forewarned about this post though, I picked out a ridiculous 45 out of 419 pictures to give the bare minimum of what I liked best from what I saw in Paris (and could capture on camera, that is).

Our hotel room was a little lackluster, but the location was great: right next to Gare du Nord and only a 15 minute walk from Montmartre! We headed straight for Sacre Coeur ("Sacred Heart") Basilica at first, but it was so extremely hot and we had to get back to the hotel to move into our room (we arrived before check-in) that we came back to it later. Still, I took a picture of it because it's definitely a big Parisian icon (and with good reason):

We headed for Notre Dame Cathedral next, which I felt was much more incredible on the outside than on the inside. I had never seen gargoyles before and was amazed by how many there were adorning the church.

On the inside, the main thing to notice was definitely the stained glass:

Our next stop was the Eiffel Tower. Because I went with my parents and they didn't want to go up the tower I didn't go up the tower. I probably should've, but I felt bad making them wait there for me to stand in the long line for me to only go up and enjoy the incredible view alone. Still, I managed to get good pictures of the tower:

Our next stop was the Arc de Triumph, built by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories. It wasn't all that impressive as a structure, but still another big Parisian symbol and the statues on it were pretty interesting:

We went back to Sacre Coeur to climb the steps and take in the incredible view of Paris that we got from up top. I don't have my photo stitch software here so you'll have to deal with just one segment of the panorama:

The church was quite beautiful on the inside, but it didn't allow pictures. Right next to the church is Montmartre, so we walked around there for just a few minutes, but I came back there like 2 or 3 times later on to walk around some more.

The next day, we headed for the Tuilleries Garden, which was initially mean to be part of a palace, and it was a wonderful sight. I'm not showing any pictures of it because they can't capture how cool it really is. We also walked up to the Louvre, but didn't go in (yet).

It's probably a little hard to tell there, but the Louvre is enormous. I believe it's bigger than the Vatican Museums, which is pretty massive itself. We walked up the Champs-Elysees afterwards, which is basically lined with park area for people to lay in the grass or eat lunch on benches or just walk around. The simplest things there, to me, struck me as beautiful. I feel like such a tool saying that, but this is one example of something that I thought was so cool:

Walking along the Champs-Elysees, we eventually ran into a couple of museums and went into the Petit Palais because it was free and looked interesting. I thought it was a pretty neat museum, personally, and even discovered a new type of paintings that I enjoy: Symbolism.

I split off from my parents afterwards to head to the Musee D'Orsay, which is probably world famous for its impressive collection of Impressionist art, but it also has pre- and post-Impressionist art as well. It ended up being free, as well, because of a strike, which meant that not all of the museum was open, but the bottom floor and the Impressionist stuff was. The first exhibition there I saw that was impressive was a temporary one of Lovis Corinth, though I couldn't take pictures in there. I want to share a few of my favorites from the Impressionist section:

In that first one, standing near the painting makes it look trivial and boring, but seeing it from afar evolves it into the incredible picture you see here. I was also quite impressed with ones like the last one that were just a bunch of dots that formed a picture when put together (I know that computer printers do this, but a person actually painted that!).

My parents found the Moulin Rouge before I did, so we went there next and it's not quite as impressive as in the title movie:

Also, the area around it is quite salacious. One place was literally called P---y, and one place less than 50 meters from the Moulin Rouge had nude pictures posted right on its doors. The Moulin Rouge is the center of a plaza, of sorts, but it's quite different from the piazzas in Italy because in each direction you look, you see something like this:

That just seemed really fascinating to me, but maybe I'm just weird. Even at the Arc de Triumph you could see that in every direction. I guess it's just the Parisian style (or maybe other French cities do that as well?). I went back to Montmartre afterwards on my own for dinner (which was overpriced and not very good, I'm afraid), but it was still a great atmosphere. It didn't look quite to me like Amelie or Moulin Rouge made it look, but it still had its own charm:

The next day mostly went to Versailles, which was only a 40 minute train ride from Paris. The famed Chateau de Versailles was definitely a sight to behold. The line was long for the palace itself, so we went to the gardens and walked to Marie Antoinette's Estate. When we first entered the garden, this was what we could see:

And then, you walk further can can truly take in the sheer size of the gardens:

The pool in the back that goes into the horizon is a giant 't' shape that is truly enormous. I want to guess that it's a 1/2 mile in length, but I have no real figure on its size. Even more impressive was how well kept the gardens were:

Those aren't shrubs quite, they're trees that somehow form shrubs when planted together like that. Can you imagine how hard it must be to keep them trim to perfection like that? And details like that were everywhere across the extraordinarily large gardens.

Marie Antoinette's estate was the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon. The latter had a really peaceful, nice garden behind it with so many different types of greenery and trees. Check out this tree, that grows as if it has fallen over:

It must've been so calming for her to walk around to sights like this:

In the palace, everything was over-the-top and extravagant. Just take a look at the famed Hall of Mirrors:

What I realized when going through it was how well it served its initial task: to serve the pomp of King Louis XIV and keep him in the high regard of people centuries after his death as was obvious in the number of tourists taking pictures of his portraits and statues.

When we got back, I split off from my parents again and had a creme brulee at the cafe from Amelie:

If you don't believe me, take a look at the inside:

Even though I was there alone, I still loved being there. The ambiance was neat (great music in the background) and my waiter was such a nice guy! I think he knew I was a tourist who came to see the Amelie cafe and had probably dealt with many of them but still stayed out of the way of my shot when I took a picture of the movie poster they had in the back autographed by Audrey Tatou. Oh, and the creme brulee was excellent.

I then decided to take a night tour of Paris, on foot, by walking along the River Siene. Here comes more shots of the Eiffel Tower:

Apparently, every 15 minutes past the hour they do the thing where the whole tower sparkles. Getting a picture of that is quite difficult though:

Even more stunning was seeing the Louvre at night (it was quite a trek from the Tower). I was beside myself at how grand such a simple building looked when lit up at night:

The I.M. Pei pyramid looks especially incredible when lit up, though it was not lit up the whole time I was there so I was glad that I managed to eventually see it lit up when I got closer to it for a good shot:

I actually went into the Louvre the next day.

That cylinder in the middle of the spiral staircase is actually an open air elevator, which I thought was so cool. Anyhow, the only museum I had actually bought an audio guide at before the Louvre was the Vatican Museums, but after seeing the Louvre one I just had to rent one:

It has a freaking touch screen! It has tour tracks you can take for like Italian art or French art or whatever you're interested in and so it has a map on the device that you follow along with. This is super convenient because of how collections are spread over multiple floors so it guides you quite well and you can tap on bubbles on the map of artwork it has audio for. It was so informative and helpful that I was glad I spent the 6 euro on it. I stayed nearly 8 hours at the Louvre and still didn't see near everything! I barely scratched the surface of the French paintings, of which the Louvre has the largest collection in the world.

I want to highlight some of my favorite pieces now. I can't remember what this was one was called, but I kept looking back at it as I walked around its room because it compelled me for some reason:

I can't put my finger on what makes it so beautiful, but something does. By the way, I find it interesting how Europeans don't mind their children seeing nudity in museums like this because I ran across several groups of students (even elementary school level) there on a field trip. In America, the parents would be livid!

I had seen Michelangelo's early work in the Accademia (Florence) on the four prisoners, meant to adorn the tomb of a Pope (but was later scrapped), and I saw a couple more of what looked like the finshed product (or near-finished, at least) at the Louvre:

My favorite sculpture was this one of Cupid and Psyche, though:

You have to do a 360 of the sculpture to really appreciate the little details. The story in a nutshell goes that Psyche was deemed far too beautiful for humans, and Cupid ended up falling in love with her. He made love to her in secret so that she couldn't see him and forbade her from trying to discover his identity. Psyche was tricked by her sisters into thinking that he was hideous and would try to impregnate her and then kill her, and so she carried knife and a candle the next time she saw him and realized it was Cupid, but then the candle wax hurt him and showed him her plot so her left her angry. She tricked her sisters into killing themselves, then had to beg Cupid's mother Venus, who hated her, into getting Cupid to forgive her. So Venus sent her on these suicidal tasks, but she survived them, and when she had her get cosmetics for beauty from Prosperina, Psyche opened the box out of curiosity and fell under a sleep spell of some sort. Cupid found her, and had by then forgiven her, and awoke her in the scene that this statue depicts. It felt like the perfect representation of that moment.

This next painting from Delacroix is actually the cover of the new Coldplay album (Viva La Vida), but I actually fell in love with it before I realized how famous it was. It's just such a cool scene of liberty leading the Parisians depicted.

The Grand Gallery was enormous, and this picture probably doesn't do justice to how freaking long I had to walk to get through the entire thing:

One of the side rooms to this gallery contained the Mona Lisa, which I was personally underwhelmed by. I was more impressed by the painting across from it depicting Jesus turning water into wine, which was his first miracle:

At the end of the Gallery I found my two favorite pieces of art in the Louvre, from Pannini:

They're paintings of paintings of sights around modern and ancient Rome. I spent so long looking at each picture and remembering my trip to Rome just the previous week. I would love to get a print of at least one of them for my apartment, I really would. I may look for one once I get settled.

The layout of the museum was really interesting overall. In the Richelieu Wing there were two sculpture gardens with big transparent ceilings to let in natural light and allow those outside the museums to peep in, as well:

The Napoleon Apartments in the museum were, in my opinion, more ostentatious than many of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles. You may disagree, but just take a look at one of the rooms:

I found a small section of modern art on the top floor of that wing, and this piece definitely caught me by surprise:

His face was extremely life-like. It was creepy. My collage of Louvre pictures would not be complete without a shot of the inverted pyramid in the mall portion at the front of the ground floor of the Louvre:

I walked around a little bit after the Louvre closed and finally managed to get a nice shot of Paris along the river:

I went through the Ile St. Louis, which felt like kind of a town within Paris because it had its own island:

The last sight I headed for was the Pantheon, which I felt didn't look as impressive as the one in Rome, but looked quite wonderful in this light:

I guess that's it for now. We've been on break today and yesterday, but tomorrow we head for Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and some more places in Germany! I will be back again in a week with another post probably before I head back to the States on June 24. Have a great week everyone! I hope these pictures have been fun to see and not boring by their sheer number.