Welcome friends, to the fifth and final (yes final, stop cheering) installment of my European journey. At long last, my shameless self-indulgence can come to a conclusion; starting next week, I can resume my regular brand of self-indulgence. In short, everybody wins.
This week is going to be a little different from previous entries on account of the status of my journal. To be specific, I didn't actually write any journal entries for that week. Due to the general hustle/bustle of traveling, the distractions inherent in exotic locations, and general laziness, by the end of the tour I was writing entries about seven days after the fact. Once I returned to the normal rhythms of life in the U.S., further completion no longer seemed like a worthwhile use of my time. Odds are, these entries will be somewhat shorter than has thus far been typical. I trust no one is saddened by this.
Fortunately, I've got a pretty good memory. Really, I do! And it was a fairly memorable week, so I shouldn't forget too much. In fact, there's a a few things that went down that I'd distinctly rather not remember, but it's too late to turn back now!
Day Twenty Nine: More Paris
For some reason, the breakfast room for this hotel was located in the basement, a labyrinthine complex more resembling an aircraft carrier than anything remotely luxurious. Breakfast is now, of course, officially the least luxurious meal of the day. Deep in the subterranean corridors I found the fabled laundry room, seemingly abandoned by God and man, with a flooded floor and dank, shady walls. It was sufficiently sketchy that I momentarily considered turning back, but my clothing shortage was by now quite dire. I made a mental calculation of how much I needed to last the week, and ran like the dickens to catch the bus before it left without me.
Eric handed things off to a local guide (in spite of the fact that he was completely qualified to lead the tour himself), who gave us some interesting information about one of Paris' many public transportation options. The city actually owns hundreds (or thousands, even!) of bicycles, stationed at various places where citizens can quickly rent them for some indefinite period of time. I can't imagine they wouldn't get stolen if this were introduced in an American city, but the people of France seem to do alright with these "city bikes," so it might be an interesting experiment to run in some urban centers.
We rode the bus through the city in typical whirlwind fashion, beginning in the Latin Quarter, home of the University of Paris. In medieval times the professors and students who frequented the area actually spoke Latin on a fairly regular basis, but now the name is merely historical. It's apparently a great scene for nightlife as well as daytime recreation, with lots of those fancy cafes and bistros that make the city famous.
Over the river, we passed the Île de la Cité, a small island in the Seine, and the oldest part of Paris. The island is the home of Notre Dame, as well as the Palais de Justice, a former royal residence and (until the French Revolution) home of the Parlement of Paris. Today the palace is the home of a number of France's highest courts of law. Nearby is the Île Saint-Louis, Which is smaller and less notably populated, being made up of mostly residential districts.
On the other side of the river, we parked briefly alongside the famous Louvre to take some pictures of the city's picturesque bridges. Oldest of these is the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, which is called new because it was new, a long long time ago. Next downstream was the Pont des Arts, a popular site for exhibitions of paintings. It was also, as I was reminded repeatedly, a location in the final episode of Sex & the City. Honestly, is that all this city is to some people? Along the river banks you could see parts where the city government had imported sand from the French Riviera to create some faux-beaches. It was tacky, but people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The next stop was the Place de la Concorde, one of Paris' largest and most historic public squares. In Revolutionary times it was the home of the dreaded guillotine, where King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and many others were executed. On a lighter note, the square boasts a hefty Egyptian obelisk from the days of Ramses II, which I thought was very fascinating. About this time, Eric made the announcement that he was organizing a trip to the Moulin Rouge the next evening, which unleashed a wave of hysteria the likes of which I would have liked to have avoided at all costs; the commotion became such that I couldn't hear a damn thing the guide had to say. So while I'm sure the Place de la Concorde has some more interesting history behind it, we'll never know what it is.
From there it was down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, "the most beautiful avenue in the world." It probably got the name before it was turned into an enormous shopping mall, but it's pleasingly wide and lined with some well-kept trees, so I can't complain too much. Globalization will do what it does, after all. We rode the length of the road down to the Arc de Triomphe, which like many famous monuments in the world is too damned big for its own good. Underneath it is France's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one of the two oldest such monuments in the world.
The tour came to an end at the Place du Trocadéro, home of the Palais de Chaillot, where the option was presented to us to take a bus to the palace of Versailles. I would have liked very much to go, but I was distracted by one niggling reminder: my clothes were still in the basement washing machine, ripe for thievery. I had to return!
Of course, Paris is a very beautiful city, and it was hardly two minutes before I was distracted by the magnificent fountains and pool outside the Pailais de Chaillot. I circled the water once and a half, marveling at the urban splendor of the moment and space, thinking I might just take a while and stay there, but I remembered my mission: I had to find a metro!
On the way past the tower I was accosted by a street vendor, who flagged me down by asking if I spoke English (a common tactic in France) and insisted that he really wanted to sketch my portrait. Having difficulties saying no, I stood there awkwardly for a while. But when he told me that the decent thing for me to do would be for me to buy the portrait from him, I knew the smart thing to do was to flee post haste.
Having carefully memorized the route back home, I had none of the navigational troubles that plagued me the night before. I hit all the correct exits, and was soon walking down the now-familiar road to the hotel, a somewhat industrial zone marked by billboards. Interestingly, alongside the signs for the Eurodisney park were ads for another theme park, dedicated to France's world-famous comic book characters, Asterix and Obelix. You know you're not in Kansas anymore when characters like these are considered viable theme park material.
Thank heavens, my laundry remained unmolested in the filthy, filthy basement. Greatly relieved, I moved it along to the drier and went upstairs to the lobby, to read a book and enjoy some sunshine. It was a beautiful summer day, even in the industrial section, and the windows let in a lot of light, with plenty of lounging space.
While I was reading, I received some startling news from a friend: someone had stolen a laptop out of someone's room. Because the doors were locked, it was widely assumed to have been the work of the cleaning service, but there was no direct evidence. In a panic, I realized that my laptop, along with all my other valuables, had been left in plain sight on the desk by my bed. Visions of horrors unimaginable flashed before my eyes as I rushed to my room, but fortunately, it was still there, whole and hale. I resolved to hide it thoroughly when I was not present to guard it.
That night, an informal expedition was gathered to eat at an expensive French restaurant, because money grows on trees in France; big tall trees, with coins bursting from the bark and big leafy bills for....leaves. I could not find my own such tree, and so I went looking for my own food. I found a small-ish Chinese restaurant several blocks away from the hotel, which was delicious as per usual (even the Chinese food is better in France).
I had an unexpected linguistic adventure when a woman at the table next to mine turned to me for advice on ordering. She spoke Spanish and a small amount of English, and could not figure out how to order rice in French. Though I protested "Señora, no hablo Francés," I could not resist the challenge, and determined the correct word for her to use.
As it turns out, it was "riz."
Day Thirty: Even More Paris
The underlined item on the day's agenda was a tour of the Louvre, a museum which holds more masterpieces than have any reason to exist in one place. Once a royal palace of ridiculously epic proportions, its purpose changed forever with the French Revolution, and since those heady (headless?) days it has slowly become more and more stuffed with all manner of high class goodies. It also boasts a shopping mall and a McDonald's, so it really can be said to hold everything of true value on Earth.
The Louvre is such an ancient, important museum that a high degree of meta-reference is necessary in any tour. One of the earliest stops is deep within the building's catacombs, where sections of the old castle wall can be seen embedded in the structure of the palace. We spent about fifteen minutes on this aspect of the museum's history, after which it was back into the light of day to see some of the most famous artworks in the world.
No, I'm not going to list all those artworks. There are, quite literally, far too many of them. You walk in one room, there's the Nike of Samothrace; you walk in another, there's the Venus de Milo; turn a corner, and it's the Mona Lisa. It's several shades north of ridiculous. When you're there, you almost want to tell yourself that the objects in front of you are replicas or reproductions. After all this time, it's still difficult to conceive of these famous images as real, original objects.
A thought occurred to me while viewing the Venus de Milo in particular. It's called a great statue, and it is pretty great, as statues go. In the popular imagination it's a statue of a woman without arms, but that's only because its arms have fallen off due to some unknown trauma, and it's essentially a broken piece, existing for all time as something apart from the sculptor's original intent. Imagining the statue in its true form takes work, more than it would if we had a bona fide image of the original to compare. It seems like it should be hard to get excited about a statue like that, and yet when you're standing within a few feet of it, it really does seem special. Really great classical statues often give an impression of realism almost as striking as the "uncanny valley" of modern computer imagery, and the Venus is like that. When you're right there, it is much easier to believe that it's one of the greatest artworks of all time.
We dispersed through the museum after the tour to seek out its many mysteries on our own time, which was nice, but also an overwhelming task; giving every painting, statue, and curio in the Louvre its due would take weeks. We didn't have weeks, so before long my sister, her friends, and I broke for lunch. After that, we had an appointment with the rest of the group at the Pont Neuf, to board a ferry for a luxurious Seine cruise.
The problem was, we forgot where the Pont Neuf was. We only knew that it was near the Louvre, and managed to walk past at least three bridges in the wrong direction before we got ourselves properly oriented. We were so late, the boat very nearly left without us.
The river cruise was fine, a welcome luxury for a hot summer's day. Unfortunately, it was very hot, and nearly all the seats were filled with hot, sweaty people. Most people were tired or irritable, so we all just sast around, marveling at the bridges and the tops of landmarks looming over the streets. When we finally disembarked, it was time for some desperately needed gelato, as the afternoon grew ever more stifling.
The last official component of the day was a march to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which is somewhat different in appearance than I expected. I had pictured a grey, solemn building, but it is in fact mostly white, with a staggering array of gargoyles and statues on its front facade. Here, Eric left us to our fate, with the choice to explore the cathedral or not as individuals. Doing so would have required standing in a very long line, so I opted out. Before I took the Saint Michel metro home, I stopped to appreciate a small marker in the middle of the Cathedral square: point zero for all the roads in France. It is appropriately placed, as the cathedral sits roughly at the very center of Paris.
I don't really remember what I did that night, but I can sure tell you what I didn't do: spend a million euros on tickets to the Moulin Rouge. Utter foolishness! If my memory serves, dinner that night was Italian, and you can't go wrong with that.
Day Thirty One: Nice
A scheduling panic arose this morning, as a handful of people missed their wake up calls and held up the bus. If we'd intended to drive all the way to the coast, it might have been excusable, but we had train tickets, so the pressure was on. Chastisement was properly given, even as we sped through the streets of Paris to the station. Of course, you're always earliest when you think you're running late, and we ended up having about twenty minutes to spare. This traveler's paradox (as I call it) is not always true, but that's beside the point.
We were among the first people to board the train, which gave us the illusion that we might have the entire compartment to ourselves, with room to stretch out and relax. This was obviously not to be, for there is no justice in the world, but I would still rank trains a million slots above planes in terms of comfort and class.
The ride was not very exciting, rolling quickly through miles and miles of mostly monotonous French countryside; I might have enjoyed the view more if my seat had been near a window. At one point I decided to take a short nap, and when I woke up we were passing through Cannes. This delighted me more than it probably should have, since we were not stopping there, and I thought of how funny it would be to pretentiously tell people that I'd "been to Cannes," with no context or caveat. These are the thoughts I have when I wake up on trains.
Nice is nice (I swear I'll never do that again), with the typical flavor of a beach resort town, being the second most popular destination for tourists in the country. The atmosphere had shades of Honolulu in my perception, particularly on account of the day's exceptional humidity. I don't know if anyone has ever described southern France as being like Hawaii, but I will gladly be the first if I can. Like all beach towns, the whole place has a definite feel of being subtly tilted, even when it appears more or less flat. Places like that just seem to want you to move in a certain direction, until you're surrounded by street performers and souvenir vendors. It's the natural progression of the universe.
Before I was going to let the universe lead me anywhere, I had to set up camp in the local hotel. There I was temporarily waylaid, as I discovered in my room what might accurately be called the most comfortable bed in the entire world. What this bed was doing in a mediocre hotel in Nice, I haven't the slightest idea about, but a nap was most certainly called for. So I spent the hottest part of the afternoon on the most comfortable bed in the entire world, dreaming pleasant dreams and nearly missing the evening meal.
It was one of the few meals we ate as an entire group on a truly organized basis, though I could never exactly tell how they were organized; sometimes, if you follow the group, you find yourselves in classy restaurants that someone conveniently reserved eight or nine tables at. I don't remember whose tab the meal was on, either, although it was probably ours. In any event, after dinner Eric kindly led us down to the boardwalk for a night-time walking tour of the city.
There's plenty of entertainment to be found down by the beach, along the Promenade des Anglais, mostly in the form of rollerskating, boombox-hoisting madmen. We passed relatively close to the Hotel Negresco, a fabulous historic building far beyond the the means of our suffering wallets. Instead, we moved east into the vicinity of Old Town, whereupon we found delicious, delicious gelato at the Place du Palais de Justice. Amidst the general confusion of the crowded square, another band of rollerskaters was busy launching themselves off ramps. That's just the kind of place Nice is.
Old Town sits at the base of a really big hill, where the Château de Nice is located. The hill has a bit of history associated with it (like most things in Europe), but its principle attractions are closed at night, and getting up the hill is quite a hike, so I made a mental note to visit the next day.
On the way back I passed through the Place Masséna, the main square of the city. It's home to a series of bizarre plastic statues on tall pillars, which glow in changing colors every night, because why not? More interestingly, the square has some impressive waterworks. It's not exactly on the level of Rome, but fountains are fountains, and when there are statues of naked people and horses in the water, you've got half of the general attractions of Europe in one spectacular package. Finally, the square is home to even more nighttime street performers: I saw a particularly limber fellow do a stunning recreation of the dace routine from the video of Smooth Criminal. I'm sure Nice has a number of poetic names attributed to it already, but I have taken to calling it Boom Box Town. To put it mildly, portable stereos are a major presence.
The management of the hotel was remarkably tolerant of my using their internet connection in the lobby until two in the morning. Since their chairs are nearly as comfortable as their ridiculously comfortable beds, I'm surprised it wasn't more crowded.
Day Thirty Two: More Nice
By the time I awoke, most of my compatriots were gone, having bolted by bus to Monaco to hobnob with high rollers and princes (I assume). In retrospect, it seems rather foolish to have slept through an opportunity like that; if I had to choose between "having been to Monaco" and "not having been to Monaco," it's hard to justify a preference for the latter.
But I knew that Nice had more to offer than I'd already seen, and I had one specific target in mind: the Château de Nice, the old fort by the beach. After a small breakfast, I set out in the direction of the Place Masséna and the sea, opting to walk rather than wait for a trolley to pass by.
It was an absurdly hot, humid day, and I was soon telling myself that walking had been a mistake. Halfway to the beach I ducked into a Virgin mega-store for some sweet, sweet air conditioning. Big media stores like that are very similar in Europe and America, with the exception that prices are listed in euros, although the actual numeric values don't seem different. Also, everything's in French, which should go without saying. If I could have found a book in English upstairs, I might have got one, but it just wasn't to be.
When I finally reached the Promenade, I was confronted by a veritable motorcade, which I soon discovered to be in association with a wedding party. Some lucky young couple was apparently having the run of the town, which is pretty awesome, but if you ask me some of the drivers of those cars had been a little too festive.
By this point my pitiful canteen had been depleted by unnatural thirst, so in preparation of my ascent of the Château hill, I bought myself a great big gatorade at a little store. This barely lasted up the hike, but aside from the oppressive heat it was really a lovely walk up a twisting staircase to various look-out points. Up top is a public park with lots of grass for general-purpose lounging, and some playgrounds and toys for families and children. Mercifully, there are also plenty of trees for shade.
After a brief lunch at a convenient snack shack, I took a little path down to the waterfall I'd seen the night before from the streets below. As I understand things (and I don't claim to understand them well), the fall is fed by a natural spring that comes out of the hill, but it's framed by man-made tile-work and a reflecting pool, for the benefit of travelers and tourists in search of picturesque locations to contemplate. I stuck around the waterfall and the cool breeze for a long time before resuming my path to the site of the fort.
The Château itself is mostly gone now, but you can still climb up on top of it, where you'll be greeted by postcard sellers and other such entrepreneurs. The real benefit is of course the enhanced view of the beach and the town. Meanwhile, just to the east are some real archaeological goodies: the ruins and foundations of a small-ish church and other buildings that, curiously, none of my fellow tourists seemed to be interested in. Neither was there very much information posted by the digs. All I could tell was that there was a church, it was used concurrently with the fort, and had been destroyed and never properly rebuilt. It was probably destroyed by the Ottoman Turks during the Siege of Nice in 1543, a traumatic event that has a lot of resonance in the folk-tradition of the city.
Back at the park I ran into the wedding party once again: this time, the bride and groom were taking pictures against the Mediterranean sea. Their expansive entourage was now assembled and appeared ready to take control of that quarter of the hillside. Rather than get in their way, I made my way down the stairs toward old town to treat myself to some desperately needed gelato.
Dinner that night was much more low-key. I had some tasty seafood with a few of the girls and (as the air was much cooler in the evening) took a final walk down by the beach. I increasingly reflected on two thoughts. First between these was the bittersweet realization that the tour would be over in a matter of days, and that I'd soon be on the plane home. Second, I considered how thoroughly awesome (apart from the oppressive summer heat, exorbitant media prices, and homicidally reckless drivers) it would be to just stay on the Mediterranean coast for the rest of my life. Maybe I'd even get another chance at Monaco.
Day Thirty Three: Nice to Barcelona
We boarded a full bus that morning for the last time, thank God. Of all the things you can share with fifty people for five weeks, cramped metal tubes are among the most unbearable. Although friendships were made, a fair amount of enmity and antagonism had manifested itself by this point, which I was in no mood to deal with. Headphones certainly come in handy when the world around you is devolving into childish backbiting and the like. To add to the misery, the weather turned violently rainy as we ascended the Pyrenees mountains, and it seemed plausible that we might get blown right off the road. It was, to say the least, not a very good morning.
Things got nicer on the Spanish side of the mountains, although the sky remained vaguely overcast for the rest of the day. We broke for a snack at a truck stop which happened to have a snooker table, which we quickly converted to a billiards table for lack of knowledge of the game of snooker. I managed to embarrass myself badly in rematch of the tournament in Amsterdam, but I maintain that on an orthodox table I would have done better.
We rolled into Barcelona around mid-afternoon under light grey skies and checked in at the Catalonia Suites, our final stop in a long list of hotels of various qualities (though not all as bad as one might expect). We were a considerable distance from the central part of the city, and the only immediate attractions to be found were a few small shops and a convenience store which, notably, sold miniature kegs. This information was promptly filed away for later retrieval.
In the evening Eric led us to the metro station at El Putxet, and took us on a train-hopping tour of the underground, until we found ourselves in La Rambla, a sort of outdoor mall on one of the most popular tourist streets in the city. Here at last was the Barcelona I'd been picturing, with its gratuitous palm trees and night-club atmosphere. Parts of the streets were decorated with colorful tiles, and the entire area was brightly lit with strands of electric lights. Specifically, we explored the part that ran through El Barri Gòtic, or the "Gothic Quarter." El Gòtic is the oldest part of La Ciutat Vella, which is itself the oldest district in Barcelona, with many buildings dating to the medieval period.
We disbanded at the historic 19th Century Plaça Reial, where several famous night clubs now fill the arcades along side some (rather expensive) restaurants. Now was not the time to shrink from prices, however, for I had long nursed a craving for that most Spanish of foods, paella. Though I later learned that paella is specifically a Valencian specialty (while Barcelona on the other hand is a Catalonian city), but the most inarguably important information about paella is that wherever you can get it, it is delicious. Go get some now.
Day Thirty Four: Barcelona
No sooner had I
La Plaça Portal De La Pau (which has a pointy-looking fountain) and back to La Rambla, which incidentally has a number of fine gelato shops. "No," she said, "we're going to the GOOD one." And we did find the shop, and they served us the biggest scoops of gelato I have ever seen.
As the night was wearing on, we decided to return to the hotel by taxi, having completely lost track of where we were. Finding the hotel was trickier than it ought to have been, but our driver was handy enough and we made it back without busting our wallets in two. Once we were home I obsessively set to repacking my previously packed luggage, and managed to get myself about two hours of sleep.