Tuesday, August 26, 2008

RyanAir Reflection

After recently flying RyanAir from France to Italy, and writing about the experience (see blog below, about the flight), I didn't know what to think when seeing this news story in today's news...

I must say, I am a little freaked out by all the recent plane accidents. But, because I have good friends and family flying soon, I will stop reflecting on this issue for now...

But I will say, I am considering a nice, long boat ride back to the states when I return, come February!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Italy!!

Our flight from Paris landed at 8:30pm so we decided to stay the night in Treviso, and go to Venice the next morning. We stayed at the Hotel Continental in the center of Treviso. Right next to the train station. Great old hotel, had kind of a “Shining” vibe but was cool.

Took the train from Treviso to Venice (half hour) and then, because we tend to make life that much more complicated, Andy and I voted to not take the crowded vaporetto ride (there was such a line!) but instead to walk to our hotel. Supposedly the walk from Ferrovia (the train station) to Piazza San Marco (the landmark that our hotel is right behind) would be a fascinating 40 minute walk, according to our European travel guru, Rick Steves. And it was. It took a little longer because we had the bags and weren’t moving so swiftly. It was also very crowded in places, such as the Rialto bridge, and pretty much everywhere from there to San Marco. But the signs on the buildings that point to San Marco were very clear and frequent, and Andy asked me if I’d been there before (I hadn’t and he knew that) because I followed them and found our way so easily. We had trouble only toward the end, in actually locating our hotel because we hadn’t bought a map yet, so I asked two old Venetians who were fabulous and lovely and said a lot of things I didn’t understand, and ultimately we followed there instructions but still didn’t find the place. But, finally, we did.

Venice is a city where you really need a map to know where you are going. Otherwise, you are bound to get lost, again and again. All (tiny, alleyway-like) streets lead to squares, for the most part, but you find yourself turning onto a “street” (again, they are often so small and narrow that they seem more like an alleyway), thinking it’s a dead end, until you see people come around the corner, and then you know that it actually leads somewhere. The only way Andy and I feel is appropriate to describe it, is a tourist-filled crazy funhouse labyrinth, where you might even see the same people over and over… everyone is wandering the streets, looking at maps or just exploring… it’s wild. I don’t think anyone knows where they are going. There are pretty reliable and frequent signs that point to the Rialto Bridge or San Marco, so that’s helpful, but otherwise you just need to enjoy yourself. And we did. It was wild. The whole place is full of tourists, but again, you just need to appreciate Venice for all this, and enjoy it. It seemed pretty safe, and we had a good time.

We rode the vaparetti, which are essentially water buses; we ate wonderful food (make sure to check out our pictures!) and drank great, cheap wine from a wonderful enoteca (Alla Botte right by Calle della Bissa – not the Osteria... just pass by it and turn left). We followed our buddy Rick Steves’ advice on a bunch of restaurants (Trattoria da Giorgio ai Greci on Ponte dei Greci was the best!! We had the most amazing gnocchi with salmon for two, and the freshest and most succulent mussels ever. See pictures!) and had a blast. I will say, that many recommended places (cafes, restaurants) in both Venice and Paris are closed in August for vacations, so that was kind of sad, though I’d been warned about that in Paris. I scoffed, but now I see it’s true. Funnily enough, Rick Steves is a very common resource in Venice especially… I saw no less than 8 other tourists carrying his book, and several in Paris as well. It was hilarious to realize that Andy and I are not the only Rick Steves’ worshipping freaks out there.

We were in Venice from Wednesday until Saturday and we really just wandered, ate and relaxed. We were absolutely beat from Paris, and luckily Venice is small enough to handle easily. We were successful at getting lost several times, off the beaten path and away from the mobs of tourists that roam between Rialto and San Marco. We also each bought a 12 hour vaporetti pass and rode the boat as often as possible, all over Venice. This included a great ride to the island of Lido, which had a very beachy feel. Little did we know that, after eating lunch there, and then walking the 5 blocks or so to the other side of the island, there WAS a beach there… and it was great! The water was warm, the sky and water were so blue and beautiful. We also were shocked to see (in our sweet and innocent and proper American ways) that women were sunbathing topless! What a scandal! But really, it was a great little break and very chill.

Of course, because it was our vacation, it rained a good deal. But we were able to hide in various places, including the arcades around San Marco square. We stood on the covered walkways, drinking wine from our bottle purchased at the enoteca and just watched people. It was a really nice trip.

Saturday came, and we were, by that time, ready to get back to our home in Prague.

We took the vaporetto to the train, to a bus, to a plane, to a bus, to a subway, to a car to home. What a trip!

Venice pics 1

From Paris to Italy

I have always wanted to go to Italy. And I have never known what to expect. And I loved it! Venice is crazy, but great.

We flew into Treviso from Beauvais Airport in France. Beauvais is about 90 minutes from Paris and we had to take a bus there. The airport is so far away because we flew RyanAir, which is a European budget airline, which I’d only heard about but never flown. The tickets from Paris to Venice (well, Treviso) were 40 Euros for the both of us. I decided it was okay to fly at this low rate only after I’d heard from several reliable (and alive) sources that they had flown RyanAir, and their experiences were fine.

We decided to take a bus from Paris to the airport, and that was 13.50 euros each, so that jacked up the overall travel price just slightly. Although we had had no problem bringing both our bags as carry-on when we flew into Paris (all that was checked was the physical size), RyanAir weighed our bags and because one was over 10kg it had to be checked. And we had to pay 20 euros to check it. This was especially upsetting because I had shampoo, awesome almond-milk French body wash, AND a wine opener in the bag I carried on, and they were all confiscated. We should have put them in the other, checked bag, dammit! Oh, well, it was our own stupidity. (I will say anyone should check out these French bath products if given the chance – Le Petite Marseill – the packaging is so French and cute I really just wanted to save that! They’re available at grocery stores and Bon Marche department store.)

Anway, Beauvais is a really small airport and there seemed to be only three flights leaving from it. There’s only one wing area with three gates. There was no line; it was kind of a free for all. It was a little bit of madness. As I get older, chaos causes me slight alarm, and tension as well. I took an anti-anxiety pill (prescribed to me for flying since I get a little anxious) but it didn’t help, especially because as we waited to board the flight a huge amount of rain and hail – that’s right, hail – started coming down. And we had to walk outside to get onto the plane. So as everyone pushed their way through the line to get out the door we had to run – run – to the plane, getting soaked and pounded by hail. It was terrifying. It was a movie that can only end badly.

RyanAir doesn’t assign seats. Luckily Andy and I got two together. It was a little bit of madness - again, that tension and alarm causing madness – while people found their way to seats. An awkward Italian pre-teen girl loudly proclaimed her unhappiness about not sitting with her family (and as soon as the seatbelt light went off she was sitting on daddy’s lap, in the seat in front of me).

We took off as the hail and rain died down around us, and the flight was fine. There were a couple of bumpy moments, but it was fine. RyanAir was fine… though with the additional fees of the bus ticket and checking a bag, and the pain of getting to the airports, I don’t know that I would fly them again. I think I am getting a little fancy in my old age, and want a seat assigned, and proper lines to wait on. Regardless, we landed at Treviso in an hour and 20 minutes. We stepped off the plane and it was warm and balmy, a bit unlike Paris’ rainy, windy, occasionally sunny weather we had had for the past week. We survived the flight (not without a few tears of utter fear from me) and we were in Italy!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

7 days in Paris

We flew SkyEurope from Prague to Paris on Tuesday, August 5th. The flight was nice, though not much leg room, especially because the woman in front of me insisted on putting her seat back in the tiny amount of room I had. No matter, I was on my way to Paris!

We arrived at 4pm and took the RER-C into Paris from Orly Airport, to the Luxembourg stop. The RER, it seems, resembles the Metro North or LIRR (for you NY folks). I thought I followed all instructions properly, however, after switching from the Orlyval (the airtrain) to the RER, we found ourselves at the exit of the Luxembourg station, attempting to get out... and unable to. See, to exit these stations, you have to put your ticket through the machine at the end of the trip and obviously I failed to buy an extra ticket, or something. I don't know specifically how I screwed up, but I did, and was on near-breakdown mode since there are no attendants there to tell you what to do... but Andy spoke English to some worker who came through an exit (who probably didn't know what the hell we were saying), but the wonderful man let us out.
Thanks to that man, otherwise we'd still be there... mole people of the Paris RER system!

We stayed at the Hotel Cluny Sorbonne, which is on the Rue Victor Cousin, directly across the street from the Sorbonne. The Latin Quarter. It was also down the block from a lovely square, the Place de la Sorbonne (or something like that...). There was a lovely cafe there with some wonderful food (L'Ecritoire) and great benches and fountains. This was our home base, and it was fantastic.



Paris was... pricey. I am sad to even have to mention it, but because I see Paris as a great foodie (hate that term) experience, this really impacted our trip a bit. The dollar is quite weak right now, though I'm not completely sure of the exact exchange rate. An example, though, is that a 70 euro meal was actually 100 US dollars. Paris was hugely pricey anyway, no matter where we went, and with the weak dollar... it was tough. An average cafe breakfast of cafe au lait and a croissant was about 10 euros (for one person - crazy!) which ended up being about 13 dollars. So, the best deal is to go to a patisserie or boulangerie and get food there and go eat breakfast in Luxembourg gardens (which we were right near). We also found an excellent little crepe shop, very local and not fancy, but offering great cheap crepes AND great cheap coffee. It was on the rue Monsieur le Prince, up some steps, walking away from Boulevard Saint-Michel. Awesome.



Needless to say, we picnicked a lot. And it was great!! Wine is super cheap at the grocery stores, and so we often found ourselves out drinking great wine and eating some cheese or baguette with pate, or something yummy. Despite being pricey, it was great.



We planned on going to Versailles, but didn't. The RER trains, which we had to take there, were all screwy and confusing and we just didn't get around to it. But we did go to Notre Dame, and Montmartre and hanging at the Eiffel Tower quite a bit. We were accosted by gypsies at the Eiffel Tower. When I said "no, sorry" in response to being asked for money, then insisted I give them food, a cigarette or my wine... "Give me your wine" were the exact words. I said "no, sorry" a few more times until she walked away saying "no, sorry, no, sorry, no sorry" really nastily to herself!



Our favorite place to picnic was right on the Seine, down the steps on the Ile St Louis. Facing the right bank, which is turned into the "Paris Plage," or beach, in the summertime, was great. The city brings in sand and sets up sprinklers and drink and food stands, and its really lovely, as well as watching the boats go by... it was a great picnic spot. We always found a seat, though lots of groups of locals also picnic there. We saw students and adults, and children... it was great. People even brought candles with them to enhance their nighttime picnicking experience!



We did a ton of walking (sometimes up to 12 miles a day, which is a lot in city walking) and got very familiar with the entire left bank, and some of the right bank. This was also a good way to walk off all that pate de foie gras, my favorite french food which they put on everything, including salads. Ah, I love Paris. Except now I have some weird frictiony-rubber band feeling in my left ankle/foot area. It doesn't hurt, it just feels weird. And freaky. You can even feel it if you put your hand on the ankle. Weird! Does anyone have any clue what this is?



Anway, we had a great time in Paris. We went to some lovely restaurants, as well, including my favorite, the Cafe du Marche on the Rue Cler. We also went to Crémerie Polidor, which is a classic bistro where all the greats have eaten - Joyce, Hemingway, Kerouac and others - but they had changed their menu and so didn't have the veal, and were out of the foie gras! I had beef with tomato sauce, which was quite simple and good, and Andy had kidneys. We had an amazing lemon tart for dessert... the best I think I'd ever had.



Enough about food. Paris is also about history and beauty and elegance and style. It was great. We got all that in abundance. Fabulous trip. If you haven't been there, go.

Paris pics un

Paris pics deux

Paris pics trois



The lovely glittering, twinkling Eiffel Tower.

Monday, August 4, 2008

About eating and weight

Just a quick note for anyone wondering about my non-lite way of life. In case you have not read one of my first Prague emails, I will just say that I am convinced that the "lite" and processed way of life (which I was heartily attempting to live in NY and really not losing any weight at all, and taking in god knows how much sodium and other terrible stuff) is a total conspiracy and so as I have come here to Prague I have done away with that way of eating. I am eating mostly organic vegetables, grown here in the garden, as well as just basic, mostly non-processed and non-complex foods. I still eat some processed things, but overall I have cut way back, from my old eating lifestyle. But I am also enjoying kolac (see post below, About the Kolac) and zmrzlina (ice cream) and chocolate, though portions are definitely controlled.


And today I weighed myself, as I have been here for a month, officially, and I have LOST just over 5 pounds!! I will continue my new eating life in Paris and Venice, getting in a ton of walking, eating as many non-processed thing as possible. But I am definitely not restricting what I eat... I mean, France and Italy! Where better to eat!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

About the next trip

We are leaving on Tuesday afternoon for Paris. We will be there for eight days, then we go to Venice. We will be there for four days, and then will return to Prague.

I am very excited about going to Paris. I was there once before – four years ago, I think - with good ole Edith. We went in April and it was great. I am excited about going back. I am also excited because Andy has not been there and I cannot wait to show it to him. I have been practicing my French, preparing for what I will have to say at various times on our trip. I am hoping my French will come back to me, since I have taken about a total of 6 years of it, over my dicey high school and college years. Ah, Monsieur Hosford, I think of you now as I prepare for this journey! (and Madame Morey, though not so fondly!)

We are staying in the Latin Quarter (named for the original language spoken, as the Sorbonne and its scholars were there), which is not an area I am so familiar with. Edith and I stayed in the Rue Cler last time, and had an amazing time. Nearly everything we needed, in terms of food, and there’s really little else, was available to us there. Of course, we ventured out, but that neighborhood was great. However, it’s a little pricier now than it was then, so we went with another Rick Steves’ suggestion, and are staying near the Sorbonne at the Hotel Cluny Sorbonne hotel. This is quite near the Luxembourg Gardens, which I am eager to explore and near the Seine and the bridge to the Ile de la cite, which is a quick walk to the Ile St Louis and the Berthillon ice cream shop, which we visited last time and was great. I just wish I could remember where that fondue restaurant was, Edith?!

Anyway.

Then on to Venice… I have no idea what to expect, though have done a good deal of research, and of course have my trusty Rick Steves guidebook to help me through. I love this man. If you don’t know who he is, and you are planning a trip anywhere in Europe, I sincerely suggest you pick up his guidebook, above any others. He’s got wonderful suggestions and lists very reliable restaurants and hotels. He also has wonderful self-guided walking tours that are interesting and easy to follow. I’ve used his suggestions in Paris, Vienna and Prague and all have been great. We’ll see how he is in Italy!

It’s unlikely I will be posting anything on this trip, unless the hotel has wi-fi, which I doubt. But I will take loads of pictures and post when I return. Please, if anyone has any suggestions for sights or places to check out on this trip, let me know!!

Cheers!

About Krakow

I am so tardy with this!! My apologies, for anyone who was chomping at the bit to hear about Krakow. To sum it up: we had a lovely time, when we were not in the car. It took forever to get from Auschwitz to Krakow. I’m not sure exactly what the distance is, but it shouldn’t have taken more than about an hour, since we were traveling back roads, but it took… three hours! To put it mildly, the roads in Poland are awful. Just awful. I would suggest to anyone who travels to Poland to avoid car travel. As is also the case in the Czech Republic, natives pay an annual payment to have this sticker that allows you to travel on the highways. Tourists can obtain this sticker as well, at a gas station, but of course, you have to pay for it. This is because there are no tolls. So, trying to save money, we did not pay for the sticker, and so we had to stick to back roads. I don’t know what the highways in Poland are like, but god those roads were just treacherous.



Finally we arrived in Krakow, and it was raining. We were all crabby, so we found our hotel, the Santorini Hotel, which is on the outskirts of Krakow (we planned to take the nearby tram into the center of Krakow for dinner), and checked into our rooms. The hotel was nice and clean and the desk woman even spoke some English. The only scary moment was when she asked us for our passports and said she would keep them until we left, which, of course, we didn’t allow to happen since that would have just been crazy. No problem, she just copied the info from them and we were on our way. The rooms were small but fine, and because the hotel had a restaurant, which seemed pretty nice, we decided to stay there for dinner since, again, it was rather late, we were crabby and it was pouring. We had a nice meal, good beer, and were able to sit there for several hours. We woke up and had the “continental” breakfast, which was very impressive (they even offered little tubs of Nutella for bread!) and then we ventured into Krakow’s center.



I really don’t know what exactly we saw, because the guidebook Katka and Lukas had bought was in Czech, but we went to the old town center, which is surrounded by a nice park (despite the fact that we did see a man coming out of the bushes, pulling up his pants so he was obviously… not urinating… but hey, we’re New Yorkers and we’ve been there, done that) and were in a large square that is divided into two by an old cloth market, which is now a market where various Polish gifts and goods are sold. We saw the main church that is in this square, where every hour a man plays a trumpet, or some kind of horn, out of each of the four sides, to commemorate the original horn blower who was shot with an arrow and killed in the middle of playing a song. The current horn blower plays the same song and stops abruptly in the middle, right when the original man had been shot. This is a big deal for Krakow tourists… we read about it in the guidebook and just barely caught it at the eleven o’clock hour. However, we didn’t see the horn blower, but we were caught in a torrential downpour, which caused us to get some tea and coffee from a nearby cafĂ©. The rain stopped and we left in time to see the twelve o’clock horn blowing, and as we waited, large tourist groups gathered around us. The clock struck twelve and we could hear the horn, but couldn’t see it. It was being blown on the other sides. The leader of a nearby group kept saying in English, “just be patient, you must be patient, he is on the other sides, this is the last side and he will be here soon, be patient” and finally he came out. We could see only the end of the horn, but when he stopped we applauded and he waved, and everyone waved back. It was neat.



We continued walking around, just exploring. We stopped for beer, we continued on, really just walking around the center of this historical area. We had lunch at a restaurant I’d found on http://www.cracow-life.com/ , called Wesele, and it was great. Katka had a salad with smoked salmon, Lukas had steak with pepper sauce, Andy had onion pierogies and I (of course) opted for the 3 course prixe-fix, so had beet soup with dumplings (which was flavorful and awesome, though the picture, with flash, looks absolutely sickening) and chicken stuffed with nuts with spinach. And of course, ice cream for dessert. We wandered back to our car and left. The downpours continued, and the back roads also continued to be dreadful. Once we got to the Czech border we sped home. The trip should have lasted 5 hours, but instead took 8, due to Polish roads, and the terrible traffic in Krakow. However, Krakow itself was great and we had a good time.



For Krakow pics, see the below post with links!