A Travellerspoint blog

Paris in 30 hours.....

Can you fall in love with a city in 30 hours?

sunny 65 °F

The short answer is emphatically.....YES.

Rarely in life do things that are constantly "over-romanticized" ever really live up to expectations. With all of the pop culture references to Paris, I assumed that the sight seeing would be good and I would see a lot of tourist sites. But from the time I popped out of the subway tunnel, I had a feeling it was going to be a special weekend.

Starting from the beginning, I decided to take the train to Paris because even though it was only a 40 minute flight, it was quite expensive. The Thalys train from Cologne was only a 3 hour and 15 minute trip. (The train travels at a peak speed of 186 mph) While it wasn't much cheaper than a flight, it was well worth the experience and total travel time ends up only a little longer. The train was a beautiful red inside and out. Once I figured out the assigned seating, all was well.

I was meeting in Paris with a former co-worker from my AT&T days who happened to be in Europe on business. We decided to meet up for some sight seeing and good meals. Little did we know that because of the volcano we would end up seeing each other again before he was able to escape Europe. (details to follow in another blog)

So I arrive in Paris and catch a very crowded subway and end next to two different groups of Americans. Truthfully it was good to hear people in public speaking English. I spend much of my day in Germany tuning out conversations that I don't understand. I decided to engage the two groups in a chat. Both were groups of college age kids studying in Europe, who were on break from college for a month and traveling around. Sounded like a pretty good deal to me. It only took me about 20 extra years to find a way to stay in Europe and travel around.....a little later, but still pretty cool.

Once I got off the subway and popped up on the street, I was treated to a 3 man street band singing a wonderful tune in French. On my left was a mobile crepe' stand, and on my right a big outdoor florist with amazing fresh flowers. I found my travel companion Bill Brooks across the street sitting outdoors at a very hip French cafe. The weather was perfect for early April. The sun was very bright and it seemed that everyone was getting their first real time outside after a long winter. We had an opportunity to catch up over cappuccinos and couple of croque monsieur (very fancy toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Very popular in Paris cafes)

After lunch we headed to the hotel to drop off our bags. I had heard a bit about how small the hotels were in Paris and I was not disappointed. I had a full size bed, with a nicely appointed room wrapped around it....tightly. The hotel had been renovated recently, so things were nice, but I am pretty sure I could open the door, the window, and flush the toilet without getting off the bed.

Luckily for me, Bill had been to Paris before and had a good concept of the layout of the city. We agreed to be total tourists and see as much as we could in the following 30 hours....and boy did we. Since we were close, we headed across the Seine to the Louvre. (As a side note, and a very sad blow to my masculinity we were on the bridge crossing the river and I almost immediately recognized it as the bridge in the final scene of the Sex and the City series where Carrie meets Mr. Big. Don't know why I recognized it, but I did.) As we approached the Louvre, I could not believe the size of the buildings. I don't know all of the statistics, but it looked like the side facing the river ran for nearly 6 city blocks. When we got into the center I realized that the building formed a big U shape and basically doubled the size of what I expected. What an incredible place! I saw the glass pyramid in the center and all I could think about was the movie The Da Vinci Code. Based on the amount of time we had in town, we decided to tour the grounds and not go inside. I think you could spend 3-4 days in that building alone.


After we got done roaming the grounds of the Louvre, we headed for Notre Dame de Paris. Another amazing experience. I am constantly amazed by the history surrounding the entire city. We took a quick tour inside and soaked up some of the amazing architecture.

From Notre Dame we headed back towards the Champs Elysees. On our way there we made our way past the Grand Palais. Unfortunately it was closed for the day, but we got to peek inside through the gates and I was able to snap a few pics.


As we left the Grand Palais and headed for Champs Elysees, we noticed something very strange that there was little or no traffic heading down this very famous street. Everything I had heard, was that this was a bustling area with lots of traffic and cars. Well it turns out that the Paris marathon was that day and they still had the streets blocked off for part of the race. So we were able to stroll right down the middle of the Champs Elsees and take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe with very little interruption. The whole scene was a little surreal.


Once we got to the Arc we checked out the finish area of the marathon and then made our way towards the Eiffel Tower area. Along the way we stopped for some fantastic French pastries to save for later in the day. As we entered the area right before the Eiffel Tower area we found an amazing cafe with outdoor seating to have some lunch and enjoy the sunshine while gazing at the tower. We sat there for about an hour soaking up the sun and atmosphere. Since I have been in Seattle all winter, I managed to quickly get a burn on my nose and cheeks. But it was totally worth it to feel the sun for a change.

Part of the biggest entertainment besides seeing the tower, was the constant parade of high end cars driving around the traffic circle we were near. I don't know that I have seen so many exotic cars in one place. We saw Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, etc. One might think it was a parade of some sort, but I think it was just the first really nice day in Paris for the year and everyone wants to get out their pride an joy to show off.

Once we pried ourselves from our seats, we headed to the ridge overlooking the Eiffel Tower. I am not sure what I was expecting. I know I have seen millions of pictures of it before, but it was more impressive than I even imagined. The park surrounding the tower was absolutely stunning. I could stand on the piazza above the park and watch the people go by for hours. I guess it I should have realized it was so famous for a reason, but I have to say I was very impressed with the whole scene.


As we wandered towards the crowds of people near the tower we noticed a number of heavily armed military men patrolling the area. It seemed a bit out of place, but made sense to have a presence there to deter any evil activities.

We did not make our way up the tower, the line looked like there may be a 2-3 hour wait. I knew I would be back, so there was no need to spend our limited time waiting in line. We ended up taking the obligatory 100 pictures below and around the tower. I enjoyed the scene of the dozens of illegal street vendors running in mass away from the bicycle police, all of them with there Eiffel Tower replicas clanging as they ran.

As we headed back towards where we started the day we ended up in the embassy area of the city and stumbled upon the Polish Embassy and this was the day after the plane crash that killed their President. There was a giant pile of flowers and candles placed up against the gate and there were a steady stream of dignitaries coming to the embassy to pay their respects. It was an impressive sight and something I will not forget. It was a terrible tragedy and a very powerful scene.

Afterwards we made our way back towards the hotel for a quick rest, then off to dinner. We headed towards the Latin Quarter and found a very cool cafe in a side alley. The food was great, but as the sun went down it got a little chilly and windy in the area. So we finished up our meal and the carafe of wine that Bill had ordered ;-) and headed out for a night cap. Bill was living on borrowed time already based on his jet lag (flew red-eye and didn't get much sleep) so I knew it was going to be an early evening. So we stopped at a pub and enjoyed a drink and some quick conversation and called it a night.

We were up at a decent time the next day and had a great breakfast and caught a few more sights before making our way to the train station for the trip back. Bill hopped off the train in Brussels for his week of work in the home office and I made it back to Bonn with little trouble. Little did we know at the time that we would spend more quality time together thanks to the volcano.

The trip to Paris was so amazing that Mary and I changed our itinerary for her trip over in June to allow us the chance to spend 3 days exploring Paris together. I am really looking forward to returning and getting to know the city even better. If it is possible to fall in love with a city....then I am in love with Paris.

Posted by ractor 14:54 Archived in France Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A Day in Gent, Belgium

First multi-country road trip. (kinda)

overcast 55 °F

When my friends here invited me to go on a day trip to Gent, Belgium, I immediately popped open my computer and got on the inter-web for some information about our destination.


Like many cities in Europe, there is a history that traces back over 1000 years or more. I was excited to check out a place with such a long story. My European geography isn't probably as good as it should be. (especially since my undergrad degree was in Geography) Side note: for those of you who saw the Colin Farrell movie "In Bruges", it is a very similar city.

Also my first road trip with David and Luisa, it is always a good way to get to know people very well (for better or worse). If you can travel with someone, you can be friends for a long time. Keep in mind that goes both directions. ;-)

Quick back-story: David is an America I worked in the US at T-Mobile for a couple of years. Luisa is from Germany and met David while on a job rotation in the US a couple of years ago and they hit it off and they moved together back to Germany. They are getting married this summer. They have been absolutely great! Been a big help with my transition to life in Germany. The combination of a native German and someone from the US who has already made the transition to life here has been perfect. I can't thank them enough!!!

Anyway, we got on the road at a decent hour in the morning, coffee in hand and excited for the adventure. Luckily David volunteered to drive so I got to sightsee out the window. Not sure if everyone has driven in Europe, but some of the biggest challenges are that there are dozens of highways going in every different direction. If you look at a map, it looks like spaghetti in a bowl. Another key is that there is no indication of direction (N/S/E/W) for the highways, you have to know what the next major city on the road in the direction you are traveling. While Google maps is helpful, it cannot tell the whole story. Another challenge is that often times the highways will have more than one number. (for example, you could be on 555, but it is also called A4. Google maps does not differentiate) And for my last point of confusion/complaint is that in different languages a city can be called something completely different. Not especially helpful if you are looking for a specific exit or direction to travel. Slowly figuring this all out, it seems to work for the Europeans, but still pretty confusing. (ENOUGH COMPLAINING)

Once we got on the road we had great conversation getting to know each other better. It was so interesting to get a view from a different culture on so many different common topics. We had about 2 1/2 hours to discuss everything from movies and music to the modern day German view of all that happened in WWII. (pretty deep stuff, but was very helpful to understand as an American) Thanks to Luisa for being willing to share her feelings about such a massive topic. I think I learned more about the German people in that 20 minute conversation than I accumulated in my whole life.

On our way to Belgium, we briefly drove through the Netherlands (Holland). Technically, I get to check another country off my list, but I am pretty sure I will get a longer view soon enough. One interesting note along the way is that all of the rest stops are very easy access from the freeway and are privately owned by the gas station company. Kind of similar to the NJ turnpike I think. The really interesting thing was the bathroom. There was a 0.50 Euro charge to use the bathroom, they said it was for cleaning and maintenance. They were not kidding. The bathrooms were spotless! Then, on your way out through the turn style you get a 0.50 Euro coupon to spend in the store if you want. Not a bad business move in my opinion. Smart.

Enough of the background and bathroom talk. We finally make it to Gent. We parked on the edge of the central part of town and decided to walk into the city and experience the area on foot. We had heard that there were some canals in Gent that we should see for sure. So when we saw the first one, I got out my camera and started snapping pictures of the canal and the architecture of the buildings all around. It was very cool. There weren't a bunch of people around, but it looked cool to us, so we kept taking pictures. The closer we got to the center of town, we realized that maybe the first canal wasn't the coolest thing going on in Gent.

In the 4-5 cities I have been in Europe so far, all of them seem to have a town center with cobble stone streets, beautiful architecture, and busy shops and restaurants. As we reached the edge of this area in Gent, we realized what a cool place it was. From the distance we could see 3 massive towers/spires in the central area. We followed the streets in that direction and found 2 towers and a huge church. The town square looked to be undergoing a face lift with many of the main areas of cobble stone being replaced. So, we weaved our way through the construction and to the main tower in town. We decided to go in and check it out, you could actually get to the top and get a better view of the city. So we had the choice of the elevator or the stone spiral staircase.....David, being Mr. Fitness, volunteered us to take the stairs. ;-) So as we made our way up the beginning of the stairwell it was clear that the stairway was only designed for one way traffic, but there were people going both ways. If you are familiar with spiral staircases, the outside of the stair provides much more room to step that the part nearing the center. There was a railing on the outside, but it was only mildly helpful. The inside of the stairs were less that 3 inches deep and only had a single rope to hold on to if you were taking that path. Keep in mind this stairwell was probably about a foot or so wider than my shoulders. People were actually trying to come back down the stairs...which was mildly insane. We got up to the second level and Luisa told us we were crazy and hopped on the elevator for the rest of the ride. In typical male fashion, David and I pressed on....even though we had managed to barely survive climbing over the people coming down the stairs. After 4 more levels we were in the final stretch, a straight stairwell to the top. Sounded good, but then I got a look at it and realized that the passageway was only about 3/4 the width of my shoulders. So for the last 20 stairs I was shuffling my way up a stone hallway nearly sideways. (No worry about claustrophobia....yikes!) When we got to the top we shuffled out way out to the "viewing areas". First of all, there was only enough width for one person to stand and so everyone lined up and shuffled along each side of the tower. The view was amazing, it really gave you perspective of the city and each direction provided a different view of the town center area. Side note, this system would never work in the US, there were no major guard rails or security fences, etc. I would be willing to bet they believe that if someone goes to all that trouble to climb to the top of the tower, they should be able to throw themselves off if they want without any governmental regulations hindering their progress. (I might agree)

On the way down we certainly took the elevator and enjoyed the ride down much more than the trip up. Once we reached terra firma again, we were determined to find a Belgium Chocolate shoppe. Normally not a difficult task, but it was Sunday and many of them were closed. However, there was one across the square from the tower that looked amazing. In the window there were 4 foot high chocolate bunnies and 2 foot high eggs. All looking very delicious. In the very crowded shoppe I noticed there was a roped off area and decided to go investigate. As I got closer I realized the floor in the area was made of plexi-glass and you were able to look down into the basement of the building and watch the chocolate makers at work. Very cool!

While we were making our way back to the car, we stopped and walked through a former butcher/smoke house that has been turned into a hipster cafe, chocolate shop, and information center. Through it all there are big shanks of pork and sausage aging while hanging from the ceiling. Makes for a great atmosphere.....especially for a meat-a-terian like me.

Our ride home was relatively uneventful, and we closed out the evening with a couple of beers and Luisa making a nice cheese and olive platter while we watched Jurassic Park in German. (not too hard to follow)

Great day trip....first of many I am sure.

Posted by ractor 11:20 Archived in Belgium Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Germany Day Trip

Quite a variety of scenery.

overcast 50 °F

I am a little behind on my blog a this point, and I have more planned for this coming weekend so I figured I should hurry and get updated before the backlog is too much.

On the Saturday morning before Easter, I decided to take a drive in the local area to see a few sights. With the kind guidance of my office mates I had a list of places to visit. Not being completely confident in my German speaking navigation system or my ability to navigate from a printed map in German I found this to be a daunting task. But if I never try, it will never become comfortable.

My plans were fairly simple. Drive along the Rhine to Remagen (shore town) then to Altenahr (wine country) then to Nurburgring (race track), then back to Bonn. Seemed achievable in one day and based on Google maps should only be around 3 hours of total driving time.

First stop Remagen. When I pulled into town, I thought my office mates had pulled an April Fools prank on me. While the town was very quaint and the view of the river was great, there was hardly a person in sight. There is a tremendous boardwalk area along the river that looked as if it had been evacuated. I parked along side about 4 other cars in a decent sized lot. As I strolled down the boardwalk there were only a few small businesses open and hardly anyone else there. I began to understand what a holiday weekend and some blustery weather can do to tourist activities in these small towns. There were several docks on the Rhine to take guided tour boats and the workers almost looked surprised to me walking around. They looked very bored. I think on a warm summers day this area would be bustling with tourists and locals trying to enjoy the beauty of the Rhine. Not so today. Anyway, I toured through the rest of the town quickly and enjoyed some of the architecture. I think I will revisit Remagen when the weather is better to get the full experience.

Back on the road and off to Altenahr. Again, I think my timing was bad as far as seeing the complete story. However, as I drove through the wine country, I was absolutely amazed with the scenery. The road cuts through a canyon with steep walls on both sides. The road followed a small stream through the canyon. As I got further into the area I realized that the walls of the canyon were terraced to allow for 15-20 feet of growing space per tier. So inside each tier there were 50-100 grape vines facing the sun (if there were any) It was a much different experience than the rolling fields of Napa and Eastern Washington. Along the road there were several villages that were obviously dependent on wine tourism. I drove for about 10 miles in this canyon completely surrounded by vine. It was amazing. I was told later that there is a hiking trail during harvest that you can take between villages and sample the wines along the way. Must be quite a sight. While the area was pretty quiet as well, I look forward to seeing the grape vines growing and sampling some of the local vino.

On the road again! My final stop is Nurburgring, home of a race track known as "Green Hell". As I continued to drive through the country side I quickly realized I was nearing my destination. The parade of Porche, BMW, Lotus, and tricked out VW Golfs were an easily read sign that I was close. I stopped at a "burger joint" right next to a rather modest entrance to this race track. To define exactly what is going on, the Nurburgring race track is a 14 mile (21KM) race track that cuts through the forest and offers elevation changes and several hairpin turns that could push even the most talented drivers. However, anyone with $35/lap can hop on the track and run their car as fast a possible. Absolutely INSANE. So, since I had no desire to die that day (and my car rental agreement specifically mentions that I will not race my car in Nurburgring), I decided to go to the viewing area.

What I saw was incredible....and absolute mayhem. The first car I see was straight out of the 80s in the US, a VW Rabbit, painted construction orange, running at probably 6000 rpm with the tires screaming as it managed to make just one more turn. At least the guy inside was wearing a helmet. Suddenly in the distance I hear a much more refined roar of an engine, it was a Porche (went by to fast to identify model) but it flew by the viewing area and he overtook the Rabbit before the next turn as if the rabbit was standing still. Remarkable and disturbing that they would let these two cars on the same track. Kind of like me racing against Usain Bolt in the 100m with about a 85 meter head start and everyone in the stadium knowing I will still lose by 5 meters. There was a complete parade of a variety of different cars and skills that passed by in the 20 minutes I stood there. What a show. There were signs everywhere offering to rent cars to take on the track. There must be good business. I was only slightly tempted to give it a chance, but I go back to my original thought that I didn't want to die yet. So, I gathered my cameras and backpack and headed back to the parking lot that had become a car show on its own. There was easily a couple of million dollars of cars sitting in the small burger joint lot. I felt a little silly driving my 318 station wagon through the racers enjoying the cars. Oh well, I wasn't the only spectator.

So a short drive back to Bonn completed my trip on Saturday. Like I mentioned it was quite a variety of scenery. I look forward to re-visiting several of the places once the weather gets a little nicer.

Posted by ractor 05:51 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Midnight Easter Mass at the Cologne Cathedral

Absolutely Amazing!

overcast 45 °F

Since I always like to be a "good Catholic" and attend church on Christmas, Mother's Day, and Easter...I thought it might be a fantastic excuse to go see the cathedral in Cologne. I had plans on Easter to go to Belgium with friends, so at the last minute I decided to check out the midnight mass (starting at 10:30pm). It is about a 25-35 minute drive into Cologne from Bonn. Of course, I hadn't been to Cologne yet so what a better time to try to find your way to a new city but the middle of the night! (Sometimes I do these things to myself)

Getting to the city of Cologne was fairly easy. Reaching the cathedral was a whole different story. Luckily I had given myself about a 45 minute cushion to settle in and make it to church on time. Thank goodness I did, because I needed almost every minute. The most frustrating part is that you could see the church from everywhere, but getting close to it was the challenge. After driving around for 20 minutes I finally stopped into a hotel valet parking and thankfully found a very helpful guy who spoke English and it turns out the best thing I could do was park right around the corner and walk the last 5 minutes. Perfect.

So, the hard part was out of the way. I hoofed it up to the church and was amazed by the size and beauty of the building. Here are a couple of links that provide much better details than I can give. Check them out, some of the pictures and images are amazing.

Official Website (at the bottom of the page there is a link that switches the site to English)

Architecture Site - Has some amazing historical pictures and information.

So once inside I was given a 12" tapered candle and a program, but as expected the seating was already full. I was again struck by the amazing size and beauty of the inside of the cathedral. It must have been 150 feet tall inside and probably as long as a football field (or close to it). Seating was focused on the center of the hall, but there were massive hallways on both sides that allowed for plenty of standing room. The massive columns were perfect places to settle in for people who would be standing for the next 90 minutes or more. So I found my spot and waited as the endless people continued to shuffle in well into the ceremony. After a short wait, all of the lights went out in the entire building. The only light was provided by the street lamps outside streaming through the massive stained glass windows. For probably 10 minutes the crowd waited anxiously and quietly in anticipation of the start of the ceremony. People began to shuffle uncomfortably and impatiently. Almost on cue, from the back of the church a small flame began to grow into what I can only describe from my vantage point as a small bonfire. Then, as the procession of church officials started down the center aisle, people began passing the flames via their candles. Slowly the shared flames began to light the entire church, everyone holding a candle and providing the light for this massive structure.

The mass began with a familiar tempo and pace, but in an unfamiliar language. Everything was in German as I assumed, but it was amazing how familiar the ceremony still was in another language (besides Latin of course). The structure of the mass was exactly the same as every other Easter mass I had been to, but the scene was divine.

To add to the amazing scenery, a children's choir of 100+ kids in flowing white robes shuffled in about 30 feet from where I was standing. I can only describe the sounds as amazing (I know I have been using that same word a lot, but in this case it was warranted) As you can imagine the acoustics were tremendous.

So, in the culmination of the Easter story during the mass the massive organ began to play and the lights from one end of the cathedral began to turn on. The lights continued to turn on from the back to the front and the wave of sound and light swept over the entire crowd. The effect was quite moving. You could see the astonishment and joy on the people's faces in the crowd. It is something I will not soon forget.

After an experience like that the rest of the evening was pretty tame. Managed to make it back to my apartment in Bonn close to 1am, tired but a smile on my face.

Posted by ractor 07:26 Archived in Germany Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Gotta love Europe!!

Starting my 4 day Easter weekend.

all seasons in one day 50 °F

It has been an interesting week from the perspective of getting settled in even more.

I finally got my car yesterday. It is a T-Mobile fleet car - a BMW 318 wagon. No big deal here, but I was still pretty excited to get my first BMW, even if it is only for 3 months. The only catch is that it still has the winter tires on it and I can't get an appointment to put the summer tires on until next Friday. So until then, my entire "wagon" is filled with 4 tires. I can't complain, I just think it is funny.

On another settling in note, I have been trying to get the laundry situation figured out all week. First, I needed to locate the damn room. Nothing is marked, not even in German. I finally stumble upon it and figure out it takes 2 Euro/wash and 2 Euro/dry. Fair enough. So I go out in search of detergent and some 2 Euro coins. Gather both and head to the laundry room again the next evening. Put my clothes and detergent in the machine, close the door and go to put my 2 Euro coin into the slot and realize it only takes 0.50 Euro coins (DAMN IT) and there is no change machine. Not only that, the door locked on my clothes and I have no coins that will work. After a good string of old fashioned American swear words, I figured out which button would release my clothes. So, I am delayed another night. Today after work I make a mad dash to a bank before they close for the 4 day weekend, and manage to get a roll of 0.50 euro coins. Finally tonight at 10pm, I have clean clothes and now I am on a mission to find a laundry service that will prevent me from having to deal with coin-op laundry ever again. -enough of that.

I realize that this was supposed to be a travel blog, but I can only travel so much and the daily life is bound to slip in occasionally. On that note, the trip to Paris has been delayed. I had some issues getting a seat reserved for the high speed train for Easter weekend, so I decided to wait until a non-holiday weekend to make a trip.

Instead I have gotten some guidance from my colleagues at work around a couple of cool day trips in the area. Rather than butcher the names now, I will take pictures this weekend and post them appropriately. The concept is a drive down the Rhine for about an hour to a small town (Ramagen) right on the river that is supposed to be very scenic. Then cut over through wine country into another scenic town (Altenahr). After that I will travel to Nuremburg to visit a famous castle as well as a world famous race course that apparently they let the public drive on for a fee. (No I will not be racing my 318) This is not a traditional American race oval, this is long straightaways, hairpin turns, and switchbacks. Not Nascar, think Formula One. Anyway, they let the public watch all the crazy drivers in their BMW, Porche, and others try to see how fast they can go.

Beyond that, I will venture into Cologne for sure to see the famous cathedral during Easter time. Plus I hear they have US movies in English at the theaters there. Maybe I can catch Hot Tub Time Machine ;-)

Gaining a level of comfort daily, but I still feel a little dumb not being able to answer basic questions from the people at the grocery, gas station, or generally around town. But I am learning you can usually get through with the right smile, try to find common words, and the right hand gestures. (good hand gestures.....not rudeness) Many folks speak a little English, but are a little self conscious about using it. (I know how they feel)

That is all for now. I will post pictures and more comments during the weekend.

Happy Easter everyone!!

Posted by ractor 12:35 Archived in Germany Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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