Tuesday, April 30, 2013

April 28-30, 2013 – Days 27, 28, 29 - Brussels, Belgium

April 28-30, 2013 – Days 27, 28, 29 - Brussels, Belgium
I’m getting to the point where I don’t know where to start because I have so many observations every day, in every city – so I guess I will go random. 

Brussels – so many beers, so little time; so much chocolate, so little time; so much great food, so little time.  We already showed you pictures of our Brussels Hotel.  We just love this place.  There is something to see around every corner in Hotel Welcome – breakfast is included, and it’s a really good one.   

The mascot of Brussels is the Mannequin of Pis – a little boy peeing water.  He really is little, but he has a song and over 700 outfits.  We went to the City Museum today to see his wardrobe – it was quite amusing.  We couldn’t take pictures so I bought a postcard of him in his Elvis outfit and took a picture of that.  We also bought a bottle opener/corkscrew – yeah, we know – tacky, tacky.

We found a Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit in another museum which we thoroughly enjoyed.  We’ve discovered that we really prefer history museums or museums dedicated to one person.  We found this museum more interesting than the Louvre.  Even though it didn’t have any original paintings, it talked about them in great length.  We learned much more about the Mona Lisa than we did in Paris where we found the Louvre very overwhelming.  And we learned about Leonardo the scientist. 

Yesterday, we did half the chocolate crawl, but we found the best chocolate today.  We skipped Godiva – we can get that in the states – but found the most amazing chocolate-covered cherries ever (and I am a connoisseur) and great hazelnut bark at a chocolatier called Elisabeths.  The chocolate-covered cherries still have the pits – imagine that.

More about Brussels in a little bit.

Picture 1 - A little bit of heaven: Belgian Beer and Belgian Chocolate; Picture 2 - 
Our little friend - the Mannequin of Pis; Picture 3 - The Elvis Outfit; Picture 4 - Kathie and a chocolate-covered cherry; Picture 4 - St. Catherine's Square in front of our Hotel; Picture 5 - Museum with Leonardo Exhibit

Sunday, April 28, 2013

April 28, 2013 – Day 27 – Welcome to Zanzibar!

Brace yourself for a wild blogging ride.  We have to tell you about today before we finish Paris and say much of anything about Amersterdam.

This has been one of the best days of our trip so far.  We sadly left Amsterdam where we enjoyed our Dutch apartment to the max and traveled to Brussels, Belgium.  Before we left, our landlord Vlad, suggested that we try his favorite place for breakfast.  Since check-out was at 11, and our train didn’t leave until 2:20, we had plenty of time to kill.  So we had Eggs Benedict at Greenwoods.  Half- way through the meal, the girl next to us leaned over and asked how we had found it since it was an insider place that most tourists didn’t find (are we really that obvious? – I think so).  An hour later we were still talking to charming Zooey and her charming friend Eda (I probably have butchered the spellings).  They made us feel absolutely great.  They told us that if their parents did what we were doing, they would feel like they didn’t have to worry about them.  They told us that age wasn’t a number, it was an attitude and we were very young.  This after Vlad told us that he thought we were too young to be retired and guessed my age at 45 – whoo hoo!

After our delightful breakfast, we walked to the train station.  Today was a light walking day.  We probably only walked about a mile.  Most days we walk for 2-5 hours.  My back and my knee are actually better now.  The train trip was just fine -  we enjoy the trains of Europe.  After two hours, we arrived in Brussels and the Hotel Welcome. We found this hotel after recommendations from both Rick Steves and the Travel Channel’s Samantha Brown.  The owner has traveled extensively outside of Europe and all the rooms in this hotel are named and decorated after a place he has visited.  That’s why we are now in Zanzibar – the coolest room we have ever stayed in. Check out the pictures. 

The lovely lady at the reception desk recommended Grimbergen for dinner.  It wasn’t dinner – it was an experience.  Snails in garlic butter as an appetizer.  Bill had an Irish Ribeye and I had Flemish Stew, with, of course,  Flemish French fries and mayonnaise.  Our waiter recommended two beers -  Belgium is even more famous for beer than Germany.  Our first beer was dark.  He said he couldn’t find the English words to tell us what it was, but it was great.  We asked to try something else for our second beer, and he poured – with a flourish we can’t even describe – a lighter beer called Judas that had its own glass.   We could have had dessert, but we are saving ourselves for the chocolate crawl tomorrow.  All in all a great day!  And to think, we almost scratched Brussels from our trip!

By the way, did you know that you can get wine and beer from the Vending Machines in Belgium?

Picture 1:  Bill and me at the Central Station in Amsterdam; Picture 2 - Bed in Zanzibar; Picture 3 - Bathroom in Zanzibar; Picture 4 - Desk in Zanzibar; Picture 5 - Grimbergen Placemat;  Picture 6 - Bill with a Beer and a Flemish Fry at Grimbergen; Picture 7 - Hotel Vending Machine

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

April 23 – Travel Day from Paris to Amsterdam on the train – General Observations Thus Far

Picture 1: Me on the bank of the Seine - Day 1 in Paris; Picture 2 - Bill under the Eiffel Tower - Day 1 in Paris;  Picture 3: the underside of the Eiffel Tower - Day 1 in Paris

We didn't take any pictures on our travel day from Paris to Amsterdam so the pictures above of Paris will have to suffice.  We have lots more to share on Paris. 

April 23 – Travel Day from Paris to Amsterdam on the train – General Observations Thus Far

  1. It is worth it to take a cab to your accommodations when you arrive in a new city.  Dragging your luggage when you aren’t sure where you are going just isn’t worth it.
  2. Never expect a free coffee refill.
  3. If you are a coffee drinker, learn to say “coffee American” in many languages.
  4. Hotels will be charming but never quite as good as the pictures (exception: Hotel Belvedere Pool on Mallorca)
  5. Once you get to the Paris train station and from there on, you will be charged to use public restrooms.  Be sure you have change.  My tummy was upset when we left Paris, and it cost me a fortune at 70 cents a trip.  Restrooms in restaurants are always free.
  6. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.  Most people are very helpful.
  7. You can survive without a cell phone.
  8. You can’t survive without some kind of electronic communications.  We don’t have a cell phone, but we have a laptop, a Kindle, and an iPad.
  9. Don’t tip like an American – 10% is fine.
  10. Europeans, for the most part, don’t believe in ice.  You will not find icemakers in your hotel. Beer will be served cellar temperature. 
  11. You can’t get the same kind of over the counter medications here that you can find in the States.  Take what you need with you.
  12. Some hotels will not have elevators.  Be prepared to lug your luggage.
  13. Most hotels now have wifi – if not in your room, you can get it in the lobby.
  14. Hotel elevators are sometimes really skinny.  In Paris, I could fit in the elevator with my luggage and then had to send the elevator back down to get Bill.
  15. Most electronic devices will already have the voltage built in.  Our laptop and our iPad both do.  However, our Kindle needs a converter. Check the cord on your device before you leave – it should say whether it’s set up for 110 -240V or not.  You will need a plug converter.  We bought a kit that contained plug converters and a voltage converter from Triple A in Indianapolis for about $30.
  16. Most hotels now have hair dryers and air conditioning.  This was not the case when we first traveled in 2002.
  17. Now that almost all European hotels are on-line, it’s a lot easier to plan a European trip than it used to be.
  18. You can find anything by googling on the Internet.  We have had to google how to use a French Press to make coffee and how to use a bidet for “other things”.
  19. Every European city has a McDonald’s and a merry-go-round.  We didn’t physically see the one in Granada, but there was a Burger King instead. 
  20. European public transportation is fabulous.  I wish Indianapolis had even a small piece of what they have in Europe.
  21. Train travel in Europe is so easy.  Just watch the board for your track.  Head for the track and get on the train. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

April in Paris - April 16 - 23

General Summary of Our Stay in Paris -  April 16 – 23
We have loved Paris.  We could easily stay another week.  The weather has been cold,but it only rained for a little while one day.  How can we begin to describe April in Paris?  I hope the first picture summarizes it well.  We are staying on Rue Cler at the Grand Hotel Leveque which was recommended by Rick Steves.  He says that when he steps out onto Rue Cler he feels that he could have been a poodle in another life because the street is so French.  We feel the same.  Rue Cler is where the French really live, but because of Steves’ recommendations, we have also met and talked to many Americans on this street as well.  There are flower shops, supermarkets, a cheese shop, a wine shop, fruit stores, candy stores, bakeries, and probably at least ten restaurants.  We love to just walk along this street.

Are French people rude?  Sure – just like some Americans are.  But for the most part they have been helpful and friendly.  My attempts at French have been pretty pathetic – but still we have managed to get by.  And when I managed to say: “I would like the key to Room 12 please”- in French, all by myself, I was rewarded with a really big grin from the desk clerk.  

We have made some fairly substantial traveling mistakes in Paris.  For example, we finally figured out the Metro today and realized how simple it was to use.  We could have saved a lot of time if we had begun using it sooner – yes, Denise Scharicke – you have told us so.  We believed Mapquest when it told us it was only a two mile walk to the main Tourist Information – it took us five hours to get there on our first day.  When we finally realized what we had done, we decided that we were going to walk there anyway – stupid determination.  We were exhausted and ended up taking a cab back to the hotel – defeated the purpose of walking in the first place. 

April 16 – arrival in Paris – lunch at Le Petit Cler next door; walk on Rue Cler
April 17 – walked for five hours to get to the Main Tourist Information
April 18 -  took a Hop On, Hop Off Tour around Paris; took pictures of the Eiffel Tour from the Trocadero
April 19 – Went to the Louvre and to Notre Dame – lovely surprise awaited us there – more later.
April 20 –  Boat trip on the Seine; Les Invalides – Napolean’s Tomb; Rodin Museum
April 21 – All day bus trip to Normandy
April 22 – Montmartre & Sacre Coeur

Much more about Paris later. 

Picture 1: April in Paris - the Eiffel Tower; Picture 2 - Kathie from Hotel Leveque with Le Petit Cler Restaurant sign next door; Picture 3 -  Flower Stall on Rue Cler; 
Picture 4 - Cheese shop - nothing but cheese, two doors down; Picture 5 - Cafe du Marche - great omelettes. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

April 13, 14, 15 – Days 12, 13, 14 - Mallorca, Spain; Palma, Island of Mallorca, Spain

April 13, 14, 15 – Days 12, 13, 14 -  Mallorca, Spain; Palma, Island of Mallorca, Spain
When I was 13 and in the eighth grade, I read a paragraph in my geography book about the Island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain.  I decided then and there that I would go there someday.  This past weekend, my dream came true.  My only regret is that I didn’t leave enough time to really explore this beautiful place.  We had found an all-inclusive hotel and when we arrived on Saturday afternoon after traveling from Barcelona, we decided that we would take advantage of the hotel and spent all day Sunday eating, drinking, and sitting in the sun.  The resort was beautiful.  We had our own balcony.  The food was great and very plentiful.  Unfortunately, taking the day off meant that we had to choose between the beach and  the city of Palma on Monday.  Since there was still a chill in the air, we opted for Palma.  If I had to do it all again, I would have added a day so that we could go to the beach.  But we have resolved to pace ourselves.  After all, we are an old couple.  We seem to alternate which one of us is the most tired at the end of the day.

Palma is a lovely city – another place that I could call home.  We visited the Palma Cathedral because our favorite architect, Antoni Gaudi’, had redesigned and rebuilt the main altar – beautiful.  We also splurged and took a ride in a horse-driven carriage through the streets of Mallorca.  They wanted to charge 60 Euro for a half-hour for the two of us.  We walked away.  They came after us to say they would do it for 40 Euro.  We walked away.  We paid 30 Euro for a lovely tour of the city.  Sometimes I forget that people on the streets will bargain. 

Picture 1: Hotel Belvedere; Picture 2: Kathie on our balcony - Hotel Belvedere; Picture 3: The Island of Mallorca; Picture 4:  Palma Cathedral;  Picture 5: High Altar, Palma Cathedral; Picture 6: Bill in Palma

Monday, April 15, 2013

April 11, Day 10 (Back track) – Gaudi Day in Barcelona

April 11, Day 10 (Back track) – Gaudi Day in Barcelona
If you’ve never heard of Antoni Gaudi', let us enlighten you.  He is an amazing architect who shaped the Modernist movement in Barcelona and the world.  His church, La Sagrada Familia, is our very favorite in all the world.  He died in the 1920’s after being hit by a bus, and the church was and is unfinished but was dedicated by Pope Benedict in 2010 .  It is gradually being built by his followers.  When I say gradually – no public money is used for the church.  It is being finished with contributions and receipts from tourism.  When people asked him, before his death, when it would be finished, he would say his client was in no hurry.  He meant that his client was God.  We show a few of the pictures we took at Casa Mila (La Perdrera), a house that he designed, and from La Sagrada Familia.  We have lots more that we will share when we get home.  Eat your heart out Matthew Tippel - the choir loft in this church holds 1000 singers.  

Picture 1: Explanation of part of Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia; Picture 2: Main altar - La Sagrada Familia; Picture 3: Outside of La Sagrada Familia; Picture 4: Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia;  Picture 5: Figure on outside of church; Picture 6: Bill on Rooftop of Casa Mila - several different designs of chimneys - all with a specific function on this rooftop; Picture 7: Outside of Casa Mila

Two Posts for the Price of One Beautiful, Beautiful Barcelona

More next post.  We haven't even begun to tell you about Gaudi'.

April 10 – Day 9 – Granada to Barcelona
We got up really early today – a Wednesday – and got the 5:24 am bus to the airport. We were the only ones out in the cold and the dark – us and a few taxis.  We were the only people on the airport bus but a 6 Euro bus ride sure beats a 30 Euro cab ride.   We still believe we have to get to airports two hours before takeoff but we are slowly changing that opinion.  What a sleepy little airport – only eight flights today!  We flew to Barcelona and took the airport bus into the city!  Farewell Granada – happy, relaxed city that you are!

April 10 & 12  Days 9 & 11 (More about April 11 – Day 10 later)
Beautiful, sunny, warm, balmy days!
We could live in Barcelona.  It’s a crowded, beautiful city with people from all over the world.  Yet, somehow, it runs smoothly.  We stayed at Hotel Lleo (Lion) right off Plaza Catalunya, the main square! The Hotel was quite nice, but we have discovered that when weather is unseasonably warm as it is now, European hotels have a tough time regulating temperatures, and the rooms are very warm.  They did offer a free breakfast, attraction discounts, lots of information, a nice bar café’ for drinks and snacks, and a superb location.

When we arrived by plane from Granada, we were pretty tired, so all we did was walk on Las Ramblas – the main pedestrian street of Barcelona and have dinner.  This was the only disappointing dinner we’ve had so far.  We think the waiter may have been in training because we only ordered soup and salad for each of us.  I got my salad, and Bill didn’t get anything, so we had to wait while they put that right.  Then we thankfully went to bed.

Las Ramblas, by the way, is an amazing thoroughfare – flower shops and portrait painters, restaurants and ice cream shops, street entertainers, and living statues down by the waterfront.  We were there five years ago with our travel buddies Kate and Dave Wiechec and there were many more statues there then.  According to Rick Steves, living statues have to audition for their parts and no more than 15 can be at work on Las Ramblas at any one time.  If you throw a coin in their buckets, they will spring into action.  We wasted about 4 Euros getting our pictures taken with the statues on Day 11.  This same day we discovered La Rambla del Mar – an extension of Las Ramblas that goes out over the sea.  We walked the whole street and at the end discovered how much we like Mojitos.  On Day 11, we also did laundry.  Even with our small Rick Steves carry-ons (which we are now checking since it’s been free to check them and they are fat, as are we), we haven’t even been close to having worn all of our clothes.  But we were having an underwear crisis so we found a Laundromat in the University section of the city – just a short walking distance from the hotel.  Talk about a state-of-the-art find!  Ruth, the Laundromat attendant, is the daughter of one of the owners.  She is our equivalent of a high school senior, and the two of us had a great time alternating Spanish and English.  Unfortunately, she declined to have her picture taken.  If we could franchise these Laundromats in the US, we believe we could make some bucks.  You don’t need your own soap or softener – it comes in the washer.  All you need are some Euros and your laundry!

Picture 1: Beautiful downtown Barcelona; Picture 2: Bill with Living Statue on Las Ramblas;  3. Bill & Kathie at Plaza Catalunya;  4. Hotel Lleo in Barcelona where we stayed - free breakfast; 5. Barcelona Harbor with Christopher Columbus Statue;  6. Bill with his favorite new drink - a Mojito.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 9, 2013 – Day 8 – Granada, Spain – Beautiful, sunny day.

April 9, 2013 – Day 8 – Granada, Spain – Beautiful, sunny day. 
It’s been a full week of traveling for us and we’re nowhere near sick of it.  Today, we slept in – a little present to ourselves since we have to be waiting for the airport bus at 5:15 a.m. tomorrow morning.  We went to breakfast across the street – this hotel’s breakfast was too expensive for what was offered – and it was a nice breakfast.  The Anacapri Hotel – by the way – is very nice in spite of the breakfast, and the hotel clerk has been particularly wonderful.  He has helped me navigate through some internet issues and that’s why you will be getting this blog today or tomorrow.  Wish I had gotten his name! 

We went to the Royal Chapel to see the final resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella and their daughter and son-in-law Juana the Mad and Philip the Fair – Philip was so fair that it drove Juana mad.  The chapel is beautiful – wonderful biblical stories portrayed on the altar – John the Baptist and John the Apostle looking like they are out to lunch for tapas.  Then I had ice cream and Bill had coffee – if you don’t know about Bill and coffee you must understand that we have to stop several times a day.  We order dos café’s Americano descafeinado sin leche and the coffee is just the way we like it (two decaf coffees with no milk). 

After that we took the bus to Moorish quarter and took pictures of the Alhambra from the Saint Nicholas Overlook across the way.  We would have liked to go at dusk to see the Alhambra all lit up but since we are getting up early tomorrow, we passed.  We found a little bakery recommended by Rick Steves (many of our hotel, food, and other choices come from his books).  We had coffee and cake, walked around the Albaycin a bit and then took the bus back into town for another nap.  We had hamburgers Granada-style for dinner.  By the way, did you know that Granada means pomegranate and is the symbol of the city?
Now I am finishing this blog and Bill is repacking for our trip to Barcelona tomorrow.  This will be our second time in Barcelona and we are looking forward to revisiting this beautiful city. 

Picture 1 - Alhambra from St. Nicholas Overlook; Picture 2 - Kathie and Bill at St. Nicholas Overlook; Picture 3 - Bill Napping in Anacapri Hotel, Granada, Spain; Picture 4 - Lobby of Anacapri Hotel - Granada, Spain

April 8, 2013 – Day 7 – Granada, Spain Cold in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.

April 8, 2013 – Day 7 – Granada, Spain  Cold in the morning, sunny in the afternoon.

Picture 1 - Kathie - Court of the Lions, Alhambra; Picture 2 - Irises in Bloom - Alhambra - Special picture for Bill's cousin Nancy; Picture 3 - Ceiling in Palace - Alhambra;  Picture 4 - Sultan's Garden - Alhambra; Picture 5 - Bill - Alhambra; Picture 6 - Granada from Alhambra

How can we describe the sights, the sounds, the smells, the beauty of the Alhambra?!  Thanks to our Berlin friend Denise for convincing us to come to Granada.  We were waiting for the bus to the Alhambra at 7 in the morning in order to be sure to be able to change our tickets to general admission for our 8:30 a.m. appointment time.  It was dark and cold and lonely on the streets of Granada at that hour, but we made it to our destination and into the ticket line.  We had plenty of time to spare and entered the Palace between 8:30 and 9am.  How beautiful this ancient Moorish relic is!  The entire time we were there I could smell thyme and other spices on the air.  Orange trees and flowers proliferated.  I could visualize the sultans lounging and their women peering through screens.  The Alhambra is such a part of American heritage.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella took back all of Spain for Christianity during the Reconquista, and it was here that Boabdil surrendered in 1492; and, of course, it was here that Columbus was commissioned by these amazing Spanish monarchs to find the new world.  We have many, many pictures, but I will only put a few on the blog.  I hope you can get an idea of how incredible the Alhambra is.  We didn’t leave the Alhambra until after 2.  Had lunch on the way back at a nice restaurant – most restaurants offer a menu of the day – two courses along with bread, dessert, and a drink.  If you order the drink first – you get your free tapa.  Bill had salad and pork loin with potatoes and vegetables; I had pasta with a veal stew and potatoes and vegetables.  We haven’t had a bad meal yet.  We took a nap and then went to see the Cathedral.  It’s so hard to describe the churches in Europe.  They are so ornate and beautiful.  Sometimes we get a little burned out, but we are always ready to begin again.  Unfortunately, photos are generally not allowed inside so we have to buy postcards.