Saturday, August 2, 2014

There's No Place Like Home

Many years ago the author Thomas Wolfe (the one from North Carolina, not to be confused with Richmond-native and St. Christopher’s alum Tom Wolfe, the founder of New Journalism and known for his white suits) wrote a novel with the title, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Wolfe meant that figuratively, but for a good part of Wednesday it felt like that might be true for us literally.

Every summer about this time I’ll talk to a parent of a just-graduated senior who is about to head off to college.  “We thought it would be really hard,” the parent will say, “but after this summer, he’s ready—and we’re ready.”  We felt the same way about the end of our trip.  It has been an amazing experience, but we were ready to come home. 

We were scheduled to take a shuttle to London’s Heathrow Airport at 7:05 a.m. (or 2:05 a.m. Eastern time) to catch a 10:30 flight.  The day started somewhat anxiously when our shuttle driver was fifteen minutes late due to heavy traffic on the M4 headed into London, then stopped for gas on the way to the airport, but we were at Heathrow by 8.  We went through passport control and security with ease, and had nearly an hour to kill before taking off.

Things were not nearly as smooth once we arrived at JFK.  J.D. had flown through there on Sunday and gone through customs and security without a hiccup, but we weren’t as fortunate.  Our plane was delayed slightly by heavy air traffic in the New York metropolitan area, so we were maybe fifteen minutes late landing, but we weren’t concerned because we had nearly two hours until our 2:55 flight to Richmond.

Two hours wasn’t enough. Upon landing in New York for an international flight, you have to first get your passport checked by an immigration officer.  U.S. and Canadian citizens and those from other countries who have previously been in the U.S. go into a separate line and can scan passports at a kiosk, then get into line to go through immigration.  I’m guessing that our timing was poor because early afternoon is when many international flights start to arrive, and the lines were long and ponderous.  Once we got through immigration, we had to get our bags and get in another long line to go through customs.

That entire process took nearly 90 minutes, and we still had to recheck our bags, catch a bus to a different terminal, and go through security.  The Delta agents rechecking our bags told us that we were unlikely to catch our flight, but to hurry and we might make it.  Of course when you are in a hurry every impediment becomes more annoying, so it might be my imagination, but it seemed like the rest of the passengers in the airport were in slow motion, taking their sweet time.

In any case, we missed the flight by two minutes.  We had a slim chance heading into security, but Shelley was put into a line that breezed through while I had to go through the slow line.  I texted her to go without me, that I would catch a later flight, but she waited.  Had she known what awaited us, she may have had second thoughts.

Missing the flight meant that the trip ended in ironic fashion.  Whereas we arrived in Italy but our bags didn’t, on the return trip our bags made it to Richmond without us.

We went to the Delta counter to try to get on the next flight.  At first the agent talked about getting us to Richmond by way of Detroit, but eventually she found and booked us on a flight scheduled to leave at 7:25 p.m.

Going into the trip my biggest worry was how my knees would hold up in places like Rome and Paris, and they had done remarkably well, but the combination of having done a lot of walking in London with all the standing in line we had done at JFK meant that I was in agony.  There were very few available seats in the terminal, so we found a restaurant to kill some time and get off our feet.  While there we saw that our flight was now delayed until 8:55.   While at the restaurant I also saw a familiar face, Emily Mauck, the daughter of St. Christopher’s admissions director Cary Mauck.  She was returning from having climbed Mt. Kilomanjaro, and had also missed the 3 p.m. flight.

The next three hours were about hurrying up and waiting.  The terminal was less crowded and it was easier to find seats, but that was small consolation when we would have given anything to get on the plane and go.  We kept watching the departures board, and the time of our flight changed five times, including three times in a ten-minute span, from 8:55 to 8:34 to 9:29 to 9:17 to 8:57 to 9:03, and we were holding our breath hoping it wouldn’t be cancelled.

About 8:30 we heard an announcement from Gate C64 that the next five flights taking off from that gate were Washington Reagan, Washington Dulles, Baltimore, Richmond, and Nantucket.  Delta sends multiple flights through that gate at the same time, and when our flight was finally called we were with the passengers going to Nantucket.  They waltzed down the right side of the hallway and got on the plane, while we stood in another line.  Finally we were loaded onto two buses, and I wondered if they were going to bus us to Richmond, but we were eventually delivered to a plane, a plane that eventually took off and landed in Richmond.  Once we were on the plane the cockpit made an announcement that the delay had been caused by an incident in Richmond earlier in the day that supposedly closed the airport, but I never saw anything on the news.

So we’re home, dealing with jetlag and sickness (I came down with a massive cold).  Our JFK adventure means that we can now say that we spent time in Rome, Paris, London, and New York.  If New York means JFK, I’d just as soon skip it next time.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Minding Your P's and Q's

The British do pageantry like no one else, and the best daily evidence for that is the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.  It takes place at 11:30 a.m. each day during the summer, weather permitting, and every other day during the winter.

On our final day of our five-week trip, our top priority was to see the ceremony.  It was certainly impressive, but I suspect that the real value for the tourist is in being there rather than in the experience of the ceremony itself.  The real spectacle that is the Changing of the Guard, in fact, may have nothing to do with the Guard, but rather with the tourists trying to get a view or at least a picture.

We left at 9:00 a.m. and took the Underground from South Kensington Station to St. James’s Place, and were in front of Buckingham Palace two hours before the ceremonies commenced.  I say ceremonies, because the Changing of the Guard isn’t a single moment but rather a series of moments.  That makes trying to “see” the entire event difficult, especially when thousands of your closest friends are fighting for position.

Shelley didn’t feel like standing for two hours, and I didn’t feel like standing period after all the walking we did yesterday, so I found a spot on the fence next to the forecourt where the bulk of the ceremony takes place while Shelley went hunting for royalty-related souvenirs at the palace gift shop.  I was hoping she would be able to find a Queen Elizabeth bobble-head, a souvenir bearskin hat like those worn by the guards, or at the very least Princess Kate available for a few photos, but apparently that’s too much to ask.

Just after 11, we started to get some movement, with one set of guards marching through the area in front of the Victoria Memorial right outside the from gate to the Palace, followed a few minutes later the Horse Guard headed in the same direction. A small detachment of guards marched into the forecourt, and their leader (the one with the sword) kept marching up to the Palace, bowing and lowering his sword, then returning to his position.  At first we thought he was paying homage to the Queen, but either she’s homage-needy or his act is a way to keep things interesting while waiting for everyone to get into place.

Our spot on the fence wasn’t as good as hoped.  We could see most of the ceremony in front of us, but those too lazy to get there two hours early pushed forward so that there wasn't much room to breathe, and tried to hone in on our territory.  I thought about asking to borrow a sword for defense purposes.  The ceremony itself involves some marching, some passing of the regimental flag, and a concert by the regimental band.  All impressive, all well-done, all British.

Once the Changing of the Guard was done, we crossed Green Park and got on the Underground to the Charing Cross street area.  Charing Cross is known for its bookstores, and so after lunch at The Porcupine pub, where Shelley had a meat pie after Fish and chips yesterday, we walked up the street and checked out several book shops, including Foyle’s, the oldest and largest.  One thing I forgot to mention yesterday is that London takes care of tourists in an important way.  At every crosswalk there are painted instructions to “Look Right” or “Look Left” to help those of us who come from countries where you drive on the right and aren’t familiar with traffic coming from the opposite direction you grown used to.

We finished the day with two more stops not far from where we are staying.  The first was at Harrod’s  Department Store, a throwback to the days of the great department stores.  Harrod’s continues that tradition.  We walked into the prepared foods section where you can order steak for lunch or dinner or buy fancy desserts and snacks.  I've never seen anything like it.  If there are bargains available at Harrod’s, we missed them, and the line of cabs parked outside the entrances tells me that cabbies know that if you can afford Harrod’s, you can also afford to take a cab.  For our last stop we walked through Chelsea, a shopping area filled with high-end retailers, and I checked out one more of London’s best bookstores.

I titled this post, “Minding Your P’s and Q’s,” because the British are very good at pageantry and also very good at standing in line, or queue’s.  I always thought that “Q,” the character in the James Bond movies played by Desmond Llewellyn and later John Cleese, stood for something like Quartermaster, as Q is the one in charge of Bond’s 007 “Gear,” but the broader meaning of that name may be homage to the British proclivity for order, whether conducting ceremony or just standing in line.

As hard as it is to believe, our adventure is done.  We fly home tomorrow.  I’ll write a final summary post this weekend.    

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tourist in London

We arrived in London late last night for the final two days of our European adventure.  We left Gare du Nord in Paris at 8:15 p.m. on the Eurostar through the “chunnel” into England, arriving at 9:30 p.m. London time (you lose an hour between Paris and London).  The trip through the chunnel itself was almost exactly twenty minutes.  The trip was smooth and the scenery unremarkable, save for the number of modern windmills I saw dotting the French countryside through northern France.

Last night’s drama involved the hotel.  Hotels in London are very expensive, and Shelley had found a reasonably priced option through  We gave the cab driver the address near the Hyde Park section of London, but when we arrived at Prince’s Gardens we were not at a hotel but rather on a college campus.  It turns out that Imperial College in London rents out its facilities not only for summer school students but also for travelers, and that was where we were booked.  I was skeptical, not to mention hot and tired and grumpy, but the room is fine, and in fact I slept the best I have in the past week.

Given that we were unable to do a bus tour of Paris yesterday, we decided that we would go that route today, given that we didn’t have specific things we wanted to see and do.  Some former British Prime Minister is reported to have said that the best way to see and experience London is by double-decker bus, and we decided to take him up on it.

Because we arrived late last night we had no idea exactly where we were, but it turns out that Imperial College is close to a number of museums and the Royal Albert Hall.  This morning we went to South Kensington station to take the underground downtown, and as we headed for the “tube” we were travelling against the bulk of the traffic in the tunnel leading to the station.  As we walked I noted that the street musician instrument of choice in London is the accordion, although I did see a street musician playing champagne glasses later in the day.  Before getting on the train we bought Oysters, which in London don’t denote seafood but rather the recommended flexible ticket that works like a debit card.  You swipe it entering and leaving the station, and it can also be used on buses.

Arriving at Victoria Station, we found the ticket office for The Original Tour bus company, and bought a day pass, which gave us unlimited use of their four bus lines plus a half-hour boat cruise on the Thames, and got on the Yellow Line that passes most of London’s best-known downtown attractions.  There are approximately 30 stops, and you can get on and off at will, but we decided to take the full circuit.  As we drove past Buckingham Palace, we could see the guards lined up for the ceremonial Changing of the Guard, which takes place at 11:30 a.m. each morning during the summer.  The bus trip also gave Shelley great views to take pictures of famous sites including Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower Bridge (which may people think of as London Bridge), and the London Eye, the giant Ferris Wheel that looks like a bike tire that was built to celebrate the Millenium.

Once we had done the full circuit, we stopped to have lunch and a pub experience at the Shakespeare pub, but we might have chosen differently had we seen the magnificently named “Slug and Lettuce.”  We then got back on the bus and did the river tour from the Westminster Bridge to the Tower Bridge.  It was cloudy and cool, but being on the river gave us a different view of the development of London.  As we got off the boat we passed a mother telling her young son, “Just stop it.”  In true boy fashion, he was much more engaged by the opportunity to terrify pigeons than visit the Tower of London or take a river cruise, both of which the mom had obviously paid for.

The Blue Line of the Original Tour passes close to where we are staying, so we thought we would transfer to that line in order to head back.  At the bus stop right outside the entrance to Hyde Park it looked like there would not be another bus for 40 minutes, so Shelley had the brilliant idea to find a local bus covering the same route, and that’s just what we did.

I’m not sure I’d want to do the bus tour in every city, but it was a good way for us to get to know London, and I’m glad we did it.  Tomorrow’s our final day before heading home, and our “must-do” is seeing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace.  Because the Queen’s away on holiday recovering from the stresses of her regular job, parts of Buckingham Palace are open for public viewing, and Shelley said she might like to do that.  We are also thinking about seeing Westminster Abbey and checking out a few of London’s famous bookstores.       

Last Tango in Paris

The most memorable and pleasurable travel experiences are those that are unexpected.  During our 1981 cross-country trip we had several of those.  In Chicago we went up to the top of what was then the Sears Tower on a day when there was an airshow, and the first thing we saw was the Blue Angels flying in formation—beneath us.  In San Francisco we got on a cable car being driven for a promotional shot by Clyde, Clint Eastwood’s orangutan co-star from the “Every Which Way” movies.  And in LA we got in line for what we thought was the NBC Studios tour, only to find the line was for the studio audience for the Tonight Show.  Shelley and I were the last two admitted, and we had second-row seats on a night when David Letterman was the guest host.

Yesterday falls into that category.  It was our last day in Paris before taking the train for London for our final stop on the Jump European tour.  J.D. left mid-morning to head home, and we had decided not to travel to London until evening to give us another day to enjoy Paris.

Shelley decided that she’d like to take one of the double-decker bus tours around town to get a sense of the Paris attractions we had missed, so after J.D. caught the shuttle for the airport we walked over by Notre Dame to catch a bus on the Green Line, the primary intro to Paris tour offered by L’Open tours.  When we got to the bus stop, Shelley noticed a sign saying that stop wouldn’t operate on July 27 due to the Tour de France.  When she asked two bus line employees standing there they explained that the part of the tour that runs past the Louvre and Musee D’Orsay and up the Champs Elysees had to be rerouted yesterday because of the finish of the Tour yesterday.

Travel makes it hard to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world.  From a sports standpoint, each morning I check to see how the New York Mets did the night before and also look at the box score for the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the team that my former student Austin Wates plays for.  I was aware that the Tour de France was going on, but it never occurred to me that it might be in Paris while we were.

We decided to scrap the bus tour, and instead took the Metro to the Charles de Gaulle/Etoile stop, right by the Arc de Triomphe, the finish line for the Tour.  It was close to noon when we came up to the street, and the riders weren’t arriving in Paris until 7 p.m., about the time we were heading for the train station, but there was a crowd already present, and right after we got there a group of women cyclists were running their closing time trial down the Champs Elysees.  We soaked in the atmosphere, sat at a café on the Champs Elysees right across the street from the original Louis Vuitton store, and had lunch and a couple of beers.  Having lunch on the Champs was, to coin a phrase, “very pleasant,” but as we sat there I wondered about what kind of security concerns there were in the wake of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.  It wasn’t obvious. 

We also bought a Tour de France hat and t-shirt, and picked up our own giant green hands being given out by PMU, the French betting agency that sponsors the green jersey, one of four jerseys worn by the leaders of the race.  We had earlier seen a guy walking down the Champs Elysees playing the violin with one of the giant hands sticking out his butt, a true mixture of high and low culture.

We walked down the Champs Elysees toward the Tuilaries, but hit a point where pedestrians weren’t allowed to go any farther, so we doubled back and decided to catch the Metro.  The Tuilaries station was closed, so we got off at Ile de la Cite close to Notre Dame and decided to stop at a café for a drink.  I was in the mood for a coke, while Shelley had a beer, and the waitress made Shelley feel like a native when she told her, “That’s So French,” that the woman would be drinking beer and the man the soft drink.

By then it was late afternoon, with only a couple of hours left until we had to pick up our bags and head to the train station, so we decided to go to the Luxembourg Gardens not far from our hotel.  The Gardens are attached to the palace where the French Senate has its meetings, and it is one of Paris’s grand parks.  The last time I was in Paris, in the summer of 2001, I spent my last day hanging out in a couple of different parks, and it was my favorite part of the trip.

When we were a couple of blocks away, a couple of young women stopped us and asked, “Do you know how to get to the Pantheon?”  I did and gave them directions, not telling them that they had asked about one of the few Paris attractions I knew how to get to.  I also refrained from mentioning my seventh-grade report. 

At the Luxembourg Gardens we walked around looking at the beautiful flowers, listened to a folk singer, watched children sailing tiny boats in the lake (actually a pond), and had ice cream and drinks.  What we didn’t see is that supposedly the offices of the French CIA are located under the park.  We walked from the Gardens past the Pantheon, where the dome is being renovated, stopping to take a picture of the huge sculpture on the street of nude Mongolian Shen HongBiao.  We then finished our final day in Paris with a sense of symmetry, having French onion soup and beer at the same place we went when we arrived in town on Friday.

It was a great day in lots of ways, and I think it gave a sense of completion.  Yesterday allowed us to experience Paris at its best, and its best is pretty darn good.       

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Les Bones, Les Bones

We woke up yesterday morning facing the tourist’s existential dilemma.  We were in Paris on a Saturday—how could we make the most of limited time? It’s the ultimate exercise in prioritization.  What did we most want to see, how much time would that take, and what else could we fit in?

Our top priority was clear.  J.D.’s “must-see” in Paris was the Catacombs tour, which allows you to walk for a mile 60 feet below the streets of Paris past the stacked up bones of six million anonymous Parisians.

The Catacombs are open from 10-5, and so we planned to arrive right as it opened in order to minimize the one-hour wait predicted by the guidebooks.  There was no way the line could be as long as the line in Rome for the Vatican Museum had been, and in fact it wasn’t, but at 10 a.m. it already wrapped around the block.

What we didn’t know is that the line also doesn’t move very fast.  They only allow approximately 150 people down into the Catacombs at any one time, so the line crept along, and it took close to three hours until we were actually able to go in.

Fortunately for me, the line wrapped around a block that contained a small city park, and out of respect for my knees, Shelley and J.D. gave me permission to go sit on a bench until the line reached the other side of the park.  That probably saved the day for me, because just standing for a long time is utter agony.   

I used my time on the park bench to people- and pigeon-watch.  There was a man sunning himself and reading the newspaper on a bench he had apparently slept on.  Another man hung his socks to dry in the sun on a railing, and they were done before I left, meaning that the line, if not slow enough to watch paint dry, was slow enough to watch socks dry.

I watched the pigeons foraging for food, walking around my bench and feet, unconcerned by my presence.  That ended when a bird buffet arrived in the form of a woman feeding the birds.  I also watched other families who were taking turns waiting in line while others sat in the park.  One mother and daughter from Ottawa sat next to me, and the mom commented that she has never seen Paris this crowded.  We later ran into the family holding up the line in the Catacombs while listening to the audio tour for each site.  There was a guitarist wearing a Hard Rock Café Shanghai t-shirt while accompanying his Ipad, and right before I left the park and got back in line a guy came through on a Solowheel, which is a gyro-stabilized form of transportation like a Segway, but more like a unicycle in that there are no handles to hold on to.

Once we arrived at the front of the line and were admitted by the Maitre D’, the Catacombs tour took about 45 minutes.  We went down a long spiral staircase which almost gave us vertigo, then went through a section devoted to the geology of the Catacombs, which were emptied out in the 18th and 19th centuries to use the limestone for construction purposes.  Then, when the cemeteries in Paris became overcrowded, someone came up with the idea of using the Catacombs as an ossuary, as a place to store bones, and the second part of the tour goes through lots and lots of neatly stacked bones, with regular bones separated by rows of skulls.  I wondered how many of them represented victims of the French Revolution, because some of the bones dated back to 1788 or 1790, while J.D. had read somewhere that some of the bones may have been from plague victims.

At the end of the tour you enter the street through an innocent looking doorway on a residential street, and I wondered what it would be like for your next door neighbor to be the exit to the Catacombs.  There is the obligatory gift shop, but we didn’t see anything we had to have, although J.D. liked a poster with the instructive and uplifting advice, “Keep calm and remember that you will die.”

The length of time required for the Catacombs meant that it was unlikely that we were going to be able to go to Les Invalides, the second thing on J.D.’s list, and as it was after 2:00 we were hungry and fried.  We tried to get lunch at a little café, but the waiter didn’t understand that we might want to eat in addition to drink, so we finished our drinks and walked looking for another spot.  Just walking down the street in Paris is invigorating and educational, and you never know what you might see.  When I was here in the summer of 2001, I was walking down the street minding my own business when none other than Bill Clinton and James Carville, in town to see the French Open tennis tournament, walked right by me along with an entourage of Secret Service agents. 

When we arrived back at the entrance to the Catacombs, we decided to hop on the Metro and get lunch back by our hotel.  The walk from the Metro stop took us through the campus of the Sorbonne, one the world’s great universities.  We then ate and rested, until Shelley pointed out that it was Saturday afternoon in Paris and we were spending it in a tiny hotel room.

We walked to Ile de la Cite, one of two islands in the middle of the Seine that make up the old heart of Paris.  The signature site on the island is Notre Dame cathedral, and we went in.  On the outside the cathedral is beautiful, with its spires, rose window, and gargoyles, but J.D. noticed signs of disrepair inside.  In the middle a mass was being conducted, but tourists were able to walk all around the outer part of Notre Dame, including behind the altar.  There was an exhibit showing the architectural timeline of Notre Dame’s building over a 700-year period, and J.D. hoped to find a book at the bookstore detailing that development, without success.

From Notre Dame we walked down alongside the river.  During the month of July the city of Paris imports tons of sand so that there is a “beach” alongside the Seine, complete with umbrellas and beach chairs, and we walked along until we got to the other island, Ile St. Louis.  We walked around it looking for a place to eat dinner, and Shelley decided she wanted crepes, so we had both crepes for dinner and dessert, accompanied by the traditional French beverage to accompany crepes, hard cider.  It was all very good.  We then headed back to the hotel through Ile de la Cite, stopping to get a better, more classic view of Notre Dame from its back side and looking at the cadenzas, or love locks, on the Pont des Arts, one of the bridges over to the Left Bank.  It has become tradition to attach a padlock with a message on the side of the bridge in honor of loved ones.

In a place like Paris there is always more to do and more to see, but just being in Paris is valuable and worthwhile no matter what you’re doing.  We arrived at the end of the day satisfied with what we’d accomplished and grateful for the opportunity to be in Paris together.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Eiffel Night

We left Zurich yesterday morning on a 9:30 train bound for Paris.  When planning the trip I had originally thought that we would wait until later in the day so that we could explore Zurich, and Zurich looked interesting, but we ultimately had to decide between time spent in Zurich and time spent in Paris, and with limited time and with J.D. meeting us in Paris, Paris won out.  Zurich, maybe next time.

We were in Switzerland long enough to come to appreciate the Swiss rail system, which is more, shall we say, efficient than its counterpart in Italy.  The stations are nicer, the trains are nicer, everything is clearly marked, and the trains leave on time.  We saw why yesterday morning as we sat on the platform waiting for our train.  There was a train leaving on the same track thirty minutes before, and there was a female conductor standing outside the train, right across from a little electrical box.  One family got too close to the little box and she immediately made them move, and looked prepared to defend the box with her life.  I couldn’t tell if the box contained a clock (and wasn’t brave or stupid enough to try to find out), but she kept checking it, and when it was departure time pushed a button, looked down the track and blew her whistle, then got on the train and it left seconds later.

Our four-hour trip to Paris was smooth and we arrived at 1:30.  We had dinner reservations for 8:00 p.m., and I thought we might have time to see something during the afternoon, but J.D. was having lunch with Carey Pohanka, our colleague from St. Christopher’s, so once we checked into our hotel Shelley and I walked up to a café on the corner and had lunch consisting of French onion soup (which the French call “onion soup”) and beer.  Not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.  Right beside the café was a place where Parisians could pay at an automated booth and rent a bike and go.  We watched people take bikes and return bikes, and it seemed to work well, and we decided that we should get a franchise and place it in Lucca, where it would throw the bike rental industry into disarray.

Our hotel is located down the street from the Pantheon, which brought back memories even though I’d never been there.  In seventh grade French class each of us had to do a report on a Parisian building or monument, and my report was on the Pantheon.  It is best known as the burial place for famous French citizens such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Madame Curie, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Louis Braille, whose invention bears his name.  It also has artwork depicting great moments in French history such as St. Genevieve saving Paris from Attila the Hun, and is the site of the original Foucault’s Pendulum.  I believe I got an A on my seventh-grade report—if only I’d remembered all that without having to look it up in a guidebook.

Our featured event for the day was dinner at Au Bon Accueil, a restaurant located close to the Eiffel Tower, recommended to us by Cindy and Mark as their absolute favorite place to eat in Paris.  They recommended that we ask for an outside table because you have a great view of the Tower, and that the reservation be late enough that you can see the Tower lit after dark.  I had requested reservations last weekend by e-mail for 8 p.m. Friday night (the restaurant is not open on weekends), and gotten confirmation early in the week.

Of course the evening wouldn’t have been complete without some drama.  I hadn’t slept well in Zurich, so took a nap before we went, and asked J.D. to figure out directions.  We left at 7:00 p.m. and walked two blocks to the Metro station.  The Paris Metro system is very good, but unlike Rome or D.C.’s systems, there are like 14 different lines, and it is not particularly easy to get to a station on one line from a station on another, but J.D. had plotted out our trip, and it was very easy—until we got off the Metro.

We got up on the street, and when I asked J.D. which way we were going, he didn’t know.  He had plotted directions to get us to the Tower rather than the restaurant, but we didn’t see the Tower, and we thought that if we were close we probably would see it.  We also weren’t worried because J.D.’s phone would be able to find directions to the restaurant, until he informed us that he couldn’t get an Internet connection.  We walked close to a couple of restaurants hoping to pick up a signal, but nothing.  I knew the name of the restaurant and had its website, but of course none of us had written down the address.  We still had 40 minutes, so we weren’t panicked (one of us might have been panicked, or at least annoyed).

We walked up a block and could now at least see the Eiffel Tower, so we walked toward it, hoping we could get an internet signal and check the restaurant website.  At we got close, Shelley got a signal but couldn’t connect to the website.  It was 7:40.

We decided to find a cab and hoped the driver would know the address of the restaurant, but at the cabstand close to the Tower we asked three or four cab drivers and none of them had any clue.  With ten minutes before we were due at dinner, I saw an information booth underneath the Tower and asked if they could find the address.  They did and told me we were close enough to walk, but we went back to the taxi line, gave the driver the address, and made it to Au Bon Accueil with three minutes to spare before our reservation time.

Au Bon Accueil is located on a side street a couple of blocks from the Eiffel Tower, on the same street as part of the American University of Paris, and from the outdoor tables there is a great view of the Tower.  It didn’t start to get dark until 9:30 p.m., but once it did the Tower lit up and the view was magnificent.  During the summer at the top of the hour the 20,000 lights on the Tower flash and sparkle in a light show for five minutes, and watching that was a great way to enjoy dessert.

After dinner we walked back to the Eiffel Tower and found a party going on in the grassy parts of the Parc du Champs de Mars that runs between the Tower and the Ecole Militaire.  There were hundreds, maybe even several thousand people stretched out on the grass having fun, drinking wine and waiting for the 11:00 p.m. light show.  We walked the length of the park and back to the Metro, glad we had found the restaurant and glad for the experience.  The Eiffel Tower is impressive during the day, but seeing it at night is spectacular.    

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bernina Express

I am writing this from Zurich, the first time in a month that my port of call hasn’t been in Italy.  When we arrived tonight I told Shelley that in an odd way, saying we’re in Zurich feels more exotic than Rome or Paris (where we’re headed tomorrow).

We woke up this morning in Tirano, Italy, which is as far north as you can go before crossing into Switzerland.  We went to Tirano in order to experience riding the Bernina Express.

I discovered the Bernina Express when doing research on train travel from Paris to Lucca, back when we thought we would do Paris on the front end of the trip.  I came across a couple of articles saying that it was the most scenic train ride in Europe, and decided that it should be part of our adventure.

The Express runs through the Swiss Alps between Tirano and Chur in Switzerland.  We left at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon, and over the next four hours viewed amazing scenery from glaciers to gorges and engineering feats hard to imagine.  It was a great trip, but to continue a theme addressed before in this blog, after amazing view after amazing view, it’s hard to be amazed again and again.

The Bernina Express runs 122 kilometers, rises 1800 meters across the Alps, topping out at 7400 feet, and goes through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts.  It dates back to 1910, was one of the things that spurred the growth of Alpine tourism, and today is UNESCO World Heritage site.  It doesn’t go through, but leads to renowned resorts such as St. Moritz and Davos.

We had reserved tickets, and arrive half an hour before departure, but couldn’t find our car (#4).  It soon became apparent why.  There are two Bernina Express trains during the summer, both which leave at approximately the same time, and when the second train pulled, there was our car.

I didn’t realize how close Switzerland was, but within two minutes after we left we could see the border crossing on the road that ran alongside the track.  Several minutes later we went through what might be the most famous architectural feature along the route, the Bruscio Circular Viaduct, which is a corkscrew-like series of turns that allows the train to dramatically change elevation in a short span.  We were able to see where we had just come from as we completed a series of turns that produce a 360 degree curve.

We then passed through the center of the small village of Poschiavo, which lies next to a mirror-like lake.  Throughout the trip, the water was very green.  After leaving Poschiavo, the train goes up a series of switchbacks so that we were able to look back at the village and the valley four or five different time from different elevations.  There was one truck that passed by us on the road, almost close enough to touch, and ten minutes later, the same truck looked ant-sized.

As we moved into the higher elevations we began to see snow, and before long we saw several glaciers, and around them several breathtaking waterfalls.  There wasn’t much sign of life, with only scattered houses, some of which seemed without any connection to the outside world, but at one point we passed cows grazing on a very steep hillside.  They obviously belonged to someone, but we saw no evidence of a farm or barn.  I found myself worrying about them.  When Shelley and I did our cross-country trip in 1981, we were at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota and heard the story about why there are herds of buffalo there.  The buffalo are replacements for the cows that originally grazed there, but the cows had a propensity for walking off the side of a cliff, something buffalo are smart enough to know better than.  Perhaps Swiss cows are more intelligent than their South Dakota relatives, and perhaps that is true for more than cows.

Perhaps more impressive than the natural beauty was the man-made beauty in the engineering needed to pull off an undertaking like the Bernina Express.  In the first place, the train is electric, running on direct current, so that infrastructure had to be built over a very challenging landscape.  Several times today, Shelley and I looked at the electric cables and wiring running through the Alps and couldn’t imagine how someone got the idea more than a hundred years ago, how someone pulled off the engineering feat, and how someone manages the maintenance today.  That’s just the electricity.  All the stone bridges and tunnels are feats of wonder, especially the Albula tunnel which runs for 3.7 miles through a mountain.

The Alps were breathtaking, and there was so much beauty that numerous times during the afternoon I had the urge to sing “Edelweiss.”  We’ve spent two long days on the train, and train travel can be exhausting, but understanding and appreciating the rail experience is a way to understand and appreciate Europe.  It was a very worthwhile day and an experience to remember.