Friday, July 30, 2010

Carolina in My Mind...

"And I'm going to Carolina in mind...", well actually I really am going to Carolina in the morning - one last time before we go back together to get married.  I am thrilled to get home and see my family and friends, but again, I am really going to miss Cambridge because it has become "home" for me now, for obvious reasons.  Luckily, this time, my trip home is a week long, and not a month filled with business trips - I should be able to find time to relax and enjoy.

As I was packing for this trip, I started to think about how quickly time flies.  Can you believe we are already halfway finished with our 2-year time here in England?!   It has been an amazing journey and we have seen and shared so much together.  I am looking forward to the year to come - so many good things to focus on when those difficult times present themselves, and I am sure that they will.

This is truly a journey, and as a mentor told me once.  "You are about to have the experience of a life time, hold on and enjoy the ride!"

I am holding on, and I don't ever want this ride to end.

See you very soon Carolina.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The City of Light - Paris!

One European city that definitely requires more than a 3 days visit is “The City of Light” - Paris, France.  We spent Saturday - Monday of our July 4th weekend there this year, and it was a great trip, but as with most places we visit these days we wish we had a little more time.  Our goal is to see most of the places in Europe we have always wanted to visit, even if it requires weekend trips.  And while some may say these trips don’t do the city justice, I really have to disagree!  We have had some pretty amazing, educational and exciting weekend trips so far! 

Today, I give you 3 days in Paris...

We flew from London’s Luton airport into Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport - quick 50 minute flight.  And while the Eurostar train is a more scenic trip, the flight was pretty fast, and much less expensive than the train.  Once we arrived at the airport around 8:30am local time, we breezed through customs and headed outside to meet our hotel transportation.  We used for this.  Departing the airport we discovered it was pouring rain outside!  Not the best way to start a holiday weekend, but..when you only have 3 days, the rain cannot stop you!

We arrived at our hotel and checked in, but since it was so early, we weren’t able to go to our rooms, so we dropped our bags at the front desk, grabbed whatever rain gear we had (which wasn’t much) and headed out to explore.  We headed to Notre Dame on the Metro subway system.

The rain actually proved to be our friend, as I suppose most tourists don’t want to go out in the rain, there was hardly any crowd or line at Notre Dame when we arrived -this quickly changed as soon as the skies started to clear up a bit!

First part of day one included:

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint Chappelle Cathedral, views of the Siene River and “Love Locks”, Palais de Justice, one of the only original metro stops, flower market, the Deportation Memorial, a yummy Thai lunch in the Latin Quarter and some delicious ice cream from the famous Berthillon ice cream parlor, just across the river from Notre Dame.    All of these sites were in the same area and in walking distance to one another.  Afterwards, we took the metro back to our hotel (which was very close to the Eiffel Tower) and took in some day views of the Eiffel Tower, and people watched for a while, before a pretty long nap - we were exhausted!

Saturday evening, just before sunset, we headed back to the Eiffel Tower for our pre-booked reservations.  We purchased our tickets online for getting to the top of the tower, and saved ourselves from having to spend 4 hours waiting in line!  The trip to the top was great, despite a lot of annoying teenagers around us.  We enjoyed the sunset from the Eiffel Tower and all of the great views of Paris. 

Once we were back on the ground, we were able to see the tower at night on our walk towards Trocadero Place.  Here we experienced the most magnificent views of the Eiffel Tower, people-watched a bit as the World Cup celebration for Spain’s victory that same night was taking place, and then found a really cool place to grab dinner and drinks.  On our way back to the hotel, while walking through the Champs du Mars, we watched the Eiffel Tower’s hourly light show.

Sunday morning we woke up and headed to Versailles, it took about 30 -45 minutes to get there and as expected the train was packed with tourists.  Luckily we had purchased our tickets in advance and only had to wait in one REALLY long line, as opposed to two of them.  Versailles is great and we could have spent a whole day here, in fact we almost did.  After Versailles, we headed back into Paris and visited Napoleon’s Tomb and the Army Museum. 

After a nap, we had a bit more energy and headed back out for the evening.  For dinner, we went to Le Relais de L'Entrecote, one of the best places in Paris for steak frites (steak and fries).  Be sure to arrive around 7, as the line is crazy and they don’t take reservations!  Also, there is no menu!  Everyone gets steak frites served in this awesome curry sauce and a salad, your only choice is beverage and how you want your steak prepared - I recommend medium.  After a great meal and bottle of wine, we walked towards the river and enjoyed an evening boat cruise.  We saw many of the sites we had seen the previous day, but from a different view - very nice.

Monday morning, we checked out of our hotel and left our bags at the front desk.  We visited the Louvre and avoided lines using the underground metro entrance.  We spent about 2 hours here - and really only scratched the surface.  I had been here before, he had not.  An art lover could spend 3 days touring the Louvre, but due to our limited time we saw the most popular pieces of art, walked around a bit, and then were on our way! 

From the Louvre we walked through the Tuileries Gardens and Place de la Concorde to the Champs-Elysees - Paris’ most famous boulevard.   We did quite a bit of shopping on our way to see the Arc de Triomphe, and the walked back down the boulevard for more shopping and a bite to eat.   At this point, it was time to head back to our hotel and prepare for our flight to London.  We ate again in the Rue Cler neighborhood where our hotel was located and enjoyed the fact that this neighborhood was nowhere near as crowded as most of the places we visited this weekend.  We had a few macaroons, and headed back to London - great weekend, and there really is something to be said about Paris, love was certainly in the air :)

Next stop...Rome...stay tuned!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Prague, Czech Republic

We spent the weekend of June 18 -20th in Prague, Czech Republic, and I wanted to share our experience with others considering visiting this amazing city!  
We flew from London Stansted into Prague early Friday morning - flight was great and arrival/customs was a breeze.  Upon arrival we stopped at an ATM in the main airport halls to take out some cash, and purchased a ticket on the cedaz shuttle bus that would drop us off directly in front of the Marriott, at Namesti Republiky.   The overall service of the shuttle was great, but I will mention that the first shuttle that went past was full so we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next shuttle - not a huge deal, but we were eager to check in and start exploring - sitting outside of an airport for an hour wasn’t ideal, and we probably would just take a taxi to save time in the future.
Upon arrival at the Marriott we checked in, our room was ready, and dropped off our bags.  Grabbed a quick lunch in the Marriott hotel and then headed off to explore.  Our day started with a walk from our hotel past Wenceslas Square to the Tram #22 stop.  This tram is a great way to get orientation to the city of Prague and stops at most of the main attractions and areas of Prague.  We rode the tram into the Castle Quarter to the Pohorelec stop.   From here, we walked over to the Strahov Monastery and Library, and downhill through the gate to the monastery gardens - this was a highlight of the day and some of the most amazing city views we have seen.  After taking in the views we walked along to the Castle Square and then on into Prague Castle, which is more like a complex than an actual castle.  Within the castle gates, we visited St Vitus Cathedral, the Old Royal Palace, the Basilica and Convent of St George and the Golden Lane.  
Once we left Prague Castle, we found our way down a staircase that led us into Prague’s Little Quarter, and while this area wasn’t full of tourist attraction, it was a very charming neighborhood that did not feel as crowded as it actually was.  On our way, we found a great viewing area of the Charles Bridge, down by the water / shore - awesome photo opportunity.  In the Little Quarter, we visited the Lennon Wall, where graffiti has been since 1980 when John Lennon was killed.  For a long time, police would remove the graffiti every night and it would reappear the next day. This was also a gathering place for peace-seekers in Prague until their independence came in 1989. Kampa Island, Little Quarter Square, and the Church of St Nicholas other places we toured during our time in Little Quarter.  
We left Little Quarter by crossing the Charles Bridge, got some great daytime views from the bridge and enjoyed the various performers on the bridge.  The other side of the bridge leads you to the Old Town Square through Karlova Street - a zig-zagged, narrow street full of tourists, tourist traps, and marionette dolls. We arrived into Old Town Square with perfect timing as the astronomical clock was just about to strike on the hour, so we joined with other crowds and waited -  the “show” was underwhelming, but it was a bit magical as we had a guidebook that explained all of the figures and what each meant.  Lucky for us, the town square had a jumbo screen setup in the middle for the World Cup and USA was playing!  So we grabbed some food from the street vendors and enjoyed the sites, game and great weather for a while.  While in town square, be sure to look for the Tyn Church, the 27 crosses, Church of St Nicolas, and the Jan Hus Memorial.  
We were pretty worn out at this point, so we headed back to our hotel, stopping at the Billa Supermarket for some water and other things we needed for the weekend.  After  quick nap, we were ready to head out for dinner.  Our concierge at the Marriott was a huge help and arranged reservations for us at Hergetova Cihelna (recommended to me by a friend) - this place has THE MOST amazing view of Charles Bridge at night!  We sat outside, right by the water - our tables we covered which was a good thing since it started to rain, and they also have blankets at each chair in case it gets cool.  The food was not the best, but it was definitely a great experience and worth the views.  We left the restaurant when it stopped raining and headed back across Charles Bridge into the Old Town. 
That night, we took some really cool pictures of Prague and its architecture on the bridge and the while in Old Town - we headed to M1 Lounge and had drinks and hung out for a while - pretty cool spot.  
Saturday morning, we woke up pretty early as we were scheduled to tour Terezin Concentration Camp with Martin Tours - we usually do not like to be part of a tour group but considering our short time here in Prague and the distance from Prague to Terezin we opted for a tour because we really could not afford to waste time or get lost!  This was a great tour, and it was not too crowded at all - there were maybe 15 people on our tour.  You can read much more about Terezin hereTerezin and brought 60,000 Jews here to form a “model” concentration camp.  This was the place that Hitler would show in propaganda and to international organizations like the Red Cross to prove that he was not harming anyone.  He would also force the Jews at Terezin to be part of propaganda videos, were they were forced to pretend they were enjoying themselves, play soccer, and say that this was a great place.  
This is a sobering place and very moving.  Some of the areas that we will never forget include:
  • The children’s museum, where the artwork of the 100,000 children who were held here is stored.  Only 100 of these children survived.  
  • The washroom that was used for show, the prisoners were never allowed to actually use it and no water was connected to the sinks.
  • The shower stalls that were used to fool the Jews - they got used to the idea of communal showers here at Terezin and then when they were moved to Auschwitz they  had no clue that the shower stall were actually gas chambers that would send them to their deaths. 
  • The sign above the prison cells reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” - “Work Makes You Free”...
  • The execution hall and grounds - this was dark, narrow 15 minute walk through a hallway that led to execution grounds - prisoners would take this walk prior to their execution.  
I recommend this trip to everyone who visits Prague - Prague is an amazing city with lots to do, but I think we all need to see this so we never forget what happened.  
When we returned back to Prague from our day trip, we took a quick nap and relaxed for a bit before heading back out to explore Prague.  We climbed to the top of one of bridge towers for a photo-op, and stopped at the John of Nepomuk statue and brass relief on the bridge to rub the “magic” spot and make our one wish - we’ll keep you posted on if our wishes come true :)  We grabbed a quick bite to eat, had some Cream and Dream Ice Cream on Karlova street and called it a night.
The next morning, we headed to visit the Jewish Quarter - this is the area where Jews were allowed to store their archives while the Nazis were clearing their communities and sending them to concentration camps.  We avoided the lines by buying our tickets to see all of the sites at the Maisel Synagogue instead of the Pinkas Synagogue.  We toured both synagogues, Old Jewish cemetery, the ceremonial hall and the old-new synagogue.  Perhaps, the most moving was the cemetery.  From 1439 - 1787 this was the only burial ground were Jews were allowed to bury their loved ones in Prague.  Over 12,000 people have buried here - over time, they have been buried on top of one another as the space is limited - this has led to the shifting of tombstone and the formation of a raised space because of the numbers buried.  Also quite moving were 77,297 names of the Jews moved form Prague to Auschwitz to be killed in gas chambers hand-written on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue.
After leaving the Jewish Quarter, we walked back towards the Old Town Square, shopped a little, grabbed lunch and headed to our hotel where we took a taxi to the airport.  Prague is a beautiful city that is full of history - when we found out we were going to be living in England for a few years, of all the places I wanted to visit, I never considered Prague - however, this is definitely a place to visit if you ever get the chance!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The French Riviera - Trip Report

So, if you follow my blog then you know that we have been traveling quite a bit lately.  You also know that we recently visited the south of France for a planned long weekend.  However, due to a little SNAFU, our 3-day trip, became a 2-day trip.  So, I will start off by saying that you certainly need more than 2 days to do this trip justice, and in fact, even after 3 days you will still wish you could stay longer - this place is just that beautiful.

We flew into Nice, and took the #210 Xpress bus directly into Cannes - this was very easy and comfortable  - about a 30-40 minute ride.  The bus dropped us off right at the main port in Cannes, and our walk to the Intercontinental Carlton hotel was pleasant with very little luggage.  The Carlton is a classic, elegant, historic hotel - it is everything that you imagine a hotel like this would be - great location, rooms and service.  We checked into the hotel and immediately headed out to explore as our time was very limited.

Now, many people will say that Cannes is not the best "home base" for a trip like this, and while I can see their point - if you like sandy beaches (and not pebble beaches like Nice has) and you really want to relax - then this is the place to be!  In Cannes, we strolled the Promenade, took in the gorgeous views of the beach, grabbed some lunch, stood on the famous Cannes film festival red carpet, and checked out the Port and Old Town Square - that about covers the things to do in Cannes :)

From there, we took a train into Monaco where we spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening.  In Monaco, we walked from the station to Palace Square - on the way we saw the Grand Prix de Monaco race track - at Palace Square, we took in some awesome views of the city and sea below us, the Prince's Palace, the Fontieville district, the Cathedral of Monaco, the Cousteau Aquarium (which was built on a cliff, just amazing!!), and the Jardin Exotique - from their we headed back down to the port and checked out the big boy yachts and grabbed dinner.  While at dinner, we met a really fun American brother and sister who were touring France and Italy with their parents - we ended spending the rest of our evening finishing our bottle of wine (and theirs) and having great conversation!

Here's the thing -we missed out on seeing the famous Monte Carlo casino - our dinner and conversation took longer than expected and we really were enjoying ourselves!  We had to catch the last train from Monaco to Cannes, and weren't able to see the casino - my one regret of the trip really, well that and totally getting our departure airport from London wrong, causing us to miss an entire day! - but a great excuse to go back and visit this beautiful place again!

Once back in Cannes, we were pretty worn out and called it a night.  We woke up early the next morning, grabbed a quick breakfast and hung out a bit on the beach in Cannes.  After checking out of the hotel, we took the train back into Nice - where we would fly out of later that evening.

Once in Nice, we headed towards the Avenue Jean Medicin, Nice's "main street".  We arrived at the Place Massena and took in the sights, the fountains and architecture.  What was really cool is that the president of France was hosting several African dignitaries in Nice this particular weekend, and they were having lunch at a restaurant nearby, so security was everywhere and crowds were waiting to catch a glimpse of the government officials.  From here, we walked to Cours Saleya, Nice's main market square and then over to the Promenade where we hung out on the pebble beaches, took some cool photos and explored the area.  When it was time, we grabbed a taxi and headed back to the airport.

We were exhausted, and we needed more time - but this was a great weekend - and we certainly found a place that we want to see again!