Sunday, May 23, 2010

Holiday: Pictures and a Poll

After 6 straight days of updates, I'm taking a cue from our creator and resting today. I'm only posting 2 things. The first is a link to a ton of pictures from Prague, Greece, Rome, Paris and London.

The second is a quick opinion poll. The question is this: which group of guards has the silliest uniforms?

A: The Beefeaters of the Tower of London

B: The Greek Presidential Guard

C: The Vatican Swiss Guard

Friday, May 21, 2010

Holiday: London

The final leg of my capital's of Europe tour began with transportation trouble. While mom and dad had no trouble with their flight home (thank goodness!), I was not quite so fortunate. Thanks to some problems in the tunnel under the English channel, I arrived at 1:30pm instead of 9:30am. Now this may not sound like much of a difference to you but for someone who flies out the next evening, four hours of sightseeing time is big. Needless to say, I got going quick as I could. Having traveled through so many non-english speaking countries, navigating the complicated, confusing London transportation network was a breeze.

Apparently bikes aren't the only alternative to walking here

After dropping off my stuff, I headed for the Tower of London. Being the history buff that I am, this place held more fascination for me than the other tourist attractions. Thanks to my bad luck in the tunnel, I only had an hour there but I made the most of it. The Tower had an imposingly impressive and indomitable feel about it. Definitely worth a return visit.

The "Tower of London" is actually a misnomer since the area is and has been for 700 years a castle fortress (although when originally constructed it began with a single white tower)

After the tower closed at 5:30 I proceeded to wander around London for several hours. I didn't get a map or a guide but I still found my way to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace with little trouble. All of these were cool to see and the best part was that I finished my walk with a relaxing stroll through Hyde Park. It was a beautiful day and after the annoying morning, an evening walk in the park was just what the doctor ordered.

Buckingham Palace

Hyde Park

More Hyde Park

Deck chairs by the lake that I took a short nap in (brilliant!)

Kensington Park

The next morning found me heading towards my most anticipated stop in London. Can you guess what it is? Being a fairly skilled tennis player, I could think of no better way to spend my final hours in England than with a visit to Wimbledon. This was definitely the highlight of London for me. Seeing the courts where I've watched countless matches played on tv. Hearing the history of this prestigious club and the tournament it hosts. Seeing those pristine grass courts. It REALLY made me want to go play! :)

Court 1

Press conference table (you'll see it on tv if you see interview from Wimbledon)

During my tour here, I actually met a group of Brits about my age who were very friendly and invited me to lunch with them afterward. I gladly accepted and enjoyed a very good (and very large) roast beef lunch.

I then headed for Gatwick airport, praying all the time that it was still open. You see, the Iceland volcano was causing new problems. It had already closed every airport north of London and was threatening my flight. I prayed quiet seriously most of the day and all the way there. When I arrived I learned that my flight was not leaving on time but no reason was given. This of course concerned me even more but thankfully my plane did manage to leave before the airport closed.

I breathed a long sigh of relief as the plane took off and I thought back over the trip. It had been an exciting ride. As Dad said, I could tell the story of this trip with perfect accuracy and make it sound horrible or wonderful, just by changing my attitude. It definitely had its ups and downs and I was definitely ready to spend a quiet weekend or two at home. But for all that it had been wonderful. Once again, I can't wait for my next big adventure :)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Holiday: Paris

We arrived in France tuesday evening. This was the first time on our trip that a driver was not scheduled to meet us. This of course required us to improvise and adapt a great deal. For me this sounded fun. For my very tired mother, this sounded miserable. We eventually compromised by taking a bus into the city and then taking a taxi the rest of the way. Not as fun as getting lost but it was effective.

The entrance to the Louvre

Our tour began in earnest the next day at the grandest museum in the world, the Louvre. The Louvre is a 5 story complex that you could spend the better part of a week in (if you felt so inclined). After some initial wondering around, we decided to start with the big 3 there, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and of course, the Mona Lisa, pictured below in order. (Note: it's fun to stand near the Mona Lisa and listen to tourists make comments like “You call that the Mona Lisa? Back home we got illustrated dish towels bigger than that!”)

At the end of the day mom wasn't feeling too great, so we took her home and then paid nocturnal visits to Paris's two best known landmarks. See if you can guess what they are. (hint: look below)

It was late and Dad and I were feeling goofy. Can you tell?

The next day we returned to these monuments, which you have no doubt identified as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, for a daytime viewing. We also paid a visit to the Luxembourg Palace near our hotel (the home of the French Senate). Lovely place and a nice warmup for what would come the following day.

Our final day in France began with a visit to the Chateau de Versailles, the most famous palace in Europe. Versailles began as a hunting lodge for the french kings but was transformed into a palace that was the envy of Europe by Louis the XIV. It was a great tour and it was made doubly enjoyable because we skipped the 2 hour line to get in. Thanks to some help from a cute Dutch girl, we learned that you could buy tickets at a cafe that was 3 minutes from the front gate. This we speedily did and walked straight in, laughing all the way :)

The golden gate of Versailles

The famous "Hall of Mirrors"

The gardens of Versailles

The "Swiss Lake"

After Versailles we returned to our hotel to pack and prepare for our respective trips. Sadly this is where I parted ways from Mom and Dad. After a great two weeks, they headed home EARLY saturday morning. I would almost swear their suitcase was heavier when they left. But not with purchases or anything so pedestrian as that. I'm convinced it was full of memories.

However, this was not the end for me. The final leg of my journey took me to jolly old England...

PS. If you want a laugh, read the "travel guide" entry below (which I partially wrote and partially copied after my last France trip in 2003).

Travel Guide Information for France
As previously stated, driving in France is not advised because French drivers
will if necessary "follow you right into the hotel lobby." This is not as bad as it sounds however because the maximum allowable car size in Europe is Go-Kart. These cars couldn't survive a head on collision with a squirrel. On the plus side, they can be parked in less time than it takes France to lose a war. Ha ha just kidding with our friends across the Atlantic. And speaking of France here is a quick travel guide to this snotty, I mean beautiful, country.


First of all, let's dispense with this absurd stereo-typical notion that the French are rude. The French are not rude. They just happen to hate you. But that is no reason to bypass this beautiful country, whose master chefs have a well-deserved worldwide reputation for trying to trick people into eating snails.

Attractions in Paris

One of the main attractions is of course the world-famous Eiffel Tower, which created a lot of controversy when it was erected in 1889 because the builder, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, had presold it as a condominium.
Another well-known Paris landmark is the Arc de Triomphe, a moving monument to the many brave men and women who have died trying to visit it, which we do not recommend because it's located in the middle of La Place de la Traffic Coming from All Directions at 114 Miles Per Hour. But you should definitely visit the Louvre, a world-famous art museum where you can view, at close range, the backs of thousands of other tourists trying to see the Mona Lisa, which actually was stolen in 1978, but the crowd is so dense that it doesn't matter. People come away convinced that they've seen it, similar to the way people in underdeveloped nations are always seeing the face of Jesus on the skins of yams. Also in the Louvre are various statues with pieces missing; visitors are welcome to patch these up.

A Good Conversation-Starter in France:

"I guess you guys really bit the big one in World War Two, huh?"

Holiday: Rome

Nothing sums up Rome like a good Italian restaurant _

Monday morning saw us pulling into port at Athens and heading for the airport. Fortunately we had no real trouble with this and were soon winging our way to the Eternal City. When we arrived a driver sent by our hotel was waiting for us. To describe driving (and riding) in Europe, here is a short quote from Dave Barry.

Driving In Europe
Europeans, like some Americans, drive on the right side of the road, except in England, where they drive on both sides of the road; Italy, where they drive on the sidewalk; and France, where if necessary they will follow you right into the hotel lobby. If you have a valid U.S. driver’s license, you may drive in most European countries, but it’s more efficient to simply leap off a cliff.

You might be tempted to think this is a joke. If you do, please go visit these countries.

Fortunately we survived the ride to our hotel and immediately began our exploration. We decided to start big and in Rome there's nothing bigger than the Colosseum. I've talked about this before so I won't go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, it just as awe-inspiring the 2nd time you see it.

By this time in the early evening Mom was getting pretty tired (and no wonder. We were keeping some very irregular hours this trip) so we headed back to the hotel. Dad and I however, still had some energy so we walked about 10 or 15 minutes to the Trevi Fountain for some gelato (DELICIOUS Italian ice cream) and evening sightseeing. The fountain was picturesque at night and had a more relaxed feel that it does during the day. We sat, ate gelato, talked, ate gelato, took some pictures, ate more gelato and generally tried to soak up the atmosphere.

Our next day's adventures began bright and early with a trip to the Vatican and the Basilica of St. Peter. Again I've discussed this before and again this is still the most marvelous church in Christendom. Unfortunately the line for the Sistine Chapel was 2 hours long and since we had to be at the hotel ready to leave at 2:30pm, we decided to go the Pantheon instead.

This turned out to be a great choice. The Pantheon was the largest dome in the world when it was built (100BC) and it retained that title for 1600 years until the Renaissance and the building of the Florence Duomo. Its dome is so mathematically perfect that it still astounds engineers to this day. It's basic design is the basis for nearly every major dome in the world today.

Our final stop, after getting severely lost (stupid inaccurate maps) was a return visit to the Trevi Fountain in daylight. It was a bit more crowded but still a fun sight to see. Before leaving I flipped a coin backwards into the fountain. Legend has it that if you do this, you will return to Rome one day. And hey, it's already worked once :)

Thus ended our Roman Holiday. And even without Audrey, it was still a great time.

We're getting close to the end. Next up, The City of Lights....

Monday, May 17, 2010

Holiday: Greek Islands part 2

The Island of Santorini

Our final full day of cruising once again began early with a visit to the city of Heraklion on the island of Crete. For those of you who don't remember your Greek mythology (which i'm guessing is pretty much everyone), Crete was the birthplace of Zeus and the home of King Minos. It was Minos who ordered the genius inventor Daedalus to create the labyrinth and who placed the minotaur inside it. Short summary, the minotaur was eventually killed by the hero Theseus and Daedalus managed to escape the island by making wings of feathers and wax. Unfortunately we weren't able to fight a minotaur while we were there because mom employed a guide to take us on a personal tour and there just wasn't time for killing mythological creatures. *sigh

According to locals, this mountain is "The Sleeping Zeus". They say he left it to prove that this was where he was born

What we did have time to do was see a lovely, lush island that has a long proud history and a terrific amount of agriculture (they export a great deal of food and water to the other more barren islands). After a quick tour of the city, we visited the remains of an ancient palace. It was not impressive (our best picture from it is of a drawing of what the palace might have looked like). Fortunately we saved the best for last. We drove up into a small village (1oo inhabitants) and sat down for a relaxing bit of food and drink with some locals. It was charming, quaint and all those other qualities tourists love to gush about.

The drawing of what the Palace of Knossos might have looked like (maybe)

Our guide on Crete

Our small town excursion

Once again the early morning necessitated some serious R&R once we got back to the ship. But we were warned, make sure you come to the front of the ship as we approach Santorini this afternoon. "It'll be worth it" the cruise director told us. She wasn't kidding.

Santorini is a volcanic island. One of its ancient eruptions caused a large part of the island to sink deep below the surface of the ocean. This has left cliffs that are 0ver 900ft tall and are stunning to behold as you approach from the sea. To further accentuate this already breathtaking sight, almost every building on the island is white. As these pictures (and the one at the top) demonstrate, the combination of these is nothing short of magnificent.

The approach by sea
One of the small fishing ports

Our time there was short but fortunately mom had again arranged a private tour guide for us. He let us take a magnificent walk along the clifftop city of Oia (like everyone else). But unlike everyone else, we also got to see a fishing port at the base of the cliff, the back side of the island and the black sand beaches produced by the volcano.

Our Santorini guide with Dad and I on the black sand beach

All too soon we had to leave. But the island was kind enough to present us with a parting gift. A blazing orange sunset over the deep blue waters of the Aegean brought both our Santorini visit and our cruise to a magical end.

Tune in tomorrow for our Italian adventures in Roma (Rome)